Magazine September 9, 2019, Issue

The Farewell: A Restrained Deathbed Drama

Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in The Farewell (A24)

There are two ways a moviegoer can approach the month of August: by resigning himself to the sequels and studio cast-offs that populate the last days of the summer season, or by catching up on the smaller movies missed during the blockbuster rush. I’ve chosen the second way for this review, which is why you’ll be reading about The Farewell, a part-Chinese-language movie about death and emigration and modernity that might still be hanging around in an art house near you, rather than watching me try to squeeze out 800 words by conducting a Marxist analysis of Angry Birds 2.

The Farewell does have a little borrowed blockbuster energy, insofar as it stars Awkwafina, a Chinese-American rapper who joined the bigger names for Ocean’s 8 and then played the best pal in Crazy Rich Asians. But her role here is a muted one, neither a star turn nor a showy anti-star part. She plays Billi, a slouched, sweatpanted Brooklynite with literary ambitions of some sort, whose parents brought her from China to America as a child, leaving behind her grandmother, her nai nai (Zhao Shuzhen), with whom she still chats easily by phone. Unfortunately Nai Nai is dying, with a metastasizing cancer, which brings all her scattered relatives back — but not, as you might expect, to comfort her on her deathbed. They can’t do that, because nobody has told Nai Nai that she’s dying, and nobody intends to do so.

This is all based on a true story — based on an actual lie, as the title card puts it — that apparently reflects a commonplace Chinese approach to grim diagnoses. Billi, the most Americanized member of the family, wants to rebel against the conspiracy of silence, but when she travels to China and gathers with her parents and her cousins, the weight of custom descends, and she complains but goes along. Which means going through with not only a family reunion but also an entire fake wedding reception, organized by Nai Nai herself, in which Billi’s cousin, raised in Japan, pretends to be marrying his girlfriend to give the whole clan an excuse to gather. 

The wedding is just one of the many ways in which The Farewell actually plays as a kind of companion piece or complement to Crazy Rich Asians. Call it Somewhat Repressed Middle-Class Asians, maybe: Its story is muted instead of garish, quiet instead of brazen, conflict-avoiding rather than confrontational — and yet still concerned with many of the same issues of family loyalty and emigrant identity as the Singapore-set blockbuster. 

Both movies are studies in what the simultaneous interconnectedness and rivalry of East Asia and America mean for the diaspora that moves back and forth between the two. Both are portraits of matriarchs trying to hold a far-flung family together, of tensions between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, of sons trying to be American while remaining loyal to a doting, distant, sometimes domineering mother. And both are especially striking as portrayals of the way a culture of intense familial obligation interacts with the fact of smaller families and increasing childlessness — and the special distillation of pressure that gets placed on only children such as Billi, or such as the two protagonists in Crazy Rich Asians, by a familial culture intended for sprawling kinship networks that suddenly has to deal with a thinning family tree.

So The Farewell is definitely an interesting movie. Is it a good one? I’m not sure. It is restrained and austere in everything, reluctant to expose too much of any of its characters (we know about as much about Billi’s life in New York at the end as we do in the beginning), veering away quickly from the emotional confrontations it seems to be preparing and rigorously resisting the kind of subplots and complications that Hollywood usually throws in. (A scene with a handsome English-speaking doctor teases a romance for Billi, for instance, but The Farewell is too principled a movie to pander that way.) It also does remarkably little with what seem like the practical hurdles to its central deception, making tasks such as organizing a fake wedding and convincing a dying woman that she’s really healthy seem far less difficult than I would imagine them to be, and turning down many of the opportunities for black comedy that its premise obviously supplies. 

But if you accept the contrast that the movie’s characters keep drawing between the chatty, emotions-on-your-sleeve individualism of the U.S.A. and the restrained and sometimes repressed communitarianism of China, then I may simply be too, well, American to appreciate the movie fully. I admired it without loving it because I wanted more drama and less conformity and acquiescence. I wanted the absurdity of the situation to crack the cultural masks that everyone is wearing; I wanted more of the characters to reveal more about themselves. Are these reasonable desires? Maybe only to a Yank.

This article appears as “Deathbed Deception” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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