by Rob DiCristino
Writer/director Lulu Wang does something both mundane and remarkable in the opening few minutes of her second film, The Farewell. To punctuate a moment of disconnection, in which her lead character receives startling information, Wang’s camera racks focus away from the character and onto the space and people behind her. It’s an old trick, of course, a visual evocation of confusion and uncertainty. It’s the abrupt mental blackout we often feel when we’re surprised by something. We’ve seen it before. Why, then, does it feel so fresh in this instance? Because in a film about the complexities created by language, culture, age, and experience, every grain of information is crucial. The camera move isn’t pretentious; it’s intimate. Personal. We’re meant to feel the true claustrophobia of ignorance. It’s a signal. The film is telling us to watch for gaps and barriers. It’s telling us to watch for miscommunication and silence. Soon enough, however, it will be telling us to revel in the joyous moments when none of that matters at all.
The operating word here is “texture,” as The Farewell takes a nuanced approach to its depiction of a family willfully ignoring an impending crisis. Its many dinner scenes are layered with cross-talk and side glances; tiny rivalries and alliances form and collapse all over the place. Unspoken truths are buried under feigned smiles. There’s warmth and coldness. Love and resentment. Every scene hums with life. Thankfully, Wang keeps her frame lively but never busy. We can always find the emotional core of any given moment, and she doles out the film’s dry humor with an almost preternatural sense of pace and timing. The Farewell is very, very funny, primarily because jokes are allowed to build and breathe before rushing to a punchline. For many viewers, it’ll be the quirks of overbearing grandparents and chaotic gatherings that ring the most hilariously familiar, but even those without extended families will find humor in bits such as Hao Hao’s struggle to cope with his upcoming nuptials, or the elderly Mr. Li’s passive indifference to the events around him.
Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, but her performance in The Farewell requires quite a bit more heavy lifting. It’s more thoughtful; less showy. She’s more than up for the task, giving Billi a melancholy mix of frustration with Chinese traditions and reverence for its culture. She wants to reconnect with the youth that was taken from her (her father moved the family to America when she was six), but she cannot seem to reconstruct that youth as she remembers it. Like her grandfather and the house he owned, that past is long gone. Who is she, then, if her future in the U.S. is equally blurry? Perhaps she’s splitting the difference by retaining such a close relationship with her Nai Nai. Shuzhen Zhou is absolutely luminous as the family’s martiarch, a performance that should earn more than a little industry acclaim. Nai Nai happily defies the limitations of her age and physical condition by sheer force of will; she’s bright and sharp, never doddering. It’s easy to see why the family would want that disposition to endure as long as possible.
Family dynamics aside, The Farewell is ultimately asking us to consider what right we have to our own lives. Billi, Chinese by birth but raised in the West, argues that an individual determines their own destiny, and is therefore entitled to as many tools in pursuit of a long life as possible. The Chinese tradition of ignorance — carried on even by the doctors caring for Nai Nai — feels paleolithic to Billi. It’s proof not only of America’s economic supremacy, but the triumph of its individualistic ethos. But The Farewell doesn’t let her off the hook that easily. Through its Chinese characters, it argues in earnest for a more cooperative approach. Billi’s relatives make sacrifices for each other — Hao Hao marrying before his time, Nai Nai’s sister committing herself to her care — because they believe that life is richer when we carry a collective burden. Telling Nai Nai might make them all feel less guilty, Billi’s uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) insists, but it's also an abdication of their sacred duty as members of her family. The film gives equal weight to each philosophy, and it’s up to the viewer to decide which should win out.