The most insulting stories are the ones that manipulate emotions. Instead of relying on plot and characters, they decide to hold the viewers hands and tell them what to feel. Crash from 2004 is a great example. The movie uses race in the least subtle ways to draw the obvious reactions from people. The simplistic story is more about racial epithets and stereotypes than anything truly interesting.
However, when a movie does get it right, it can be memorable. Director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a 2019 movie that manages to interweave a strong story with a number of emotions. The story centers on the Wang family who have gathered together for a wedding in China. This is actually an excuse to get the whole family together for one last time with grandmother Nai Nai who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Though she is not given much time to live, the family decides to keep the truth from her.
The interesting premise can go in many directions. Wang – who initially shared the story on This American Life – does a great job of never letting The Farewell go too far in one of them. Naturally, the movie is very sad. An entire family has gathered for the first time in decades to basically say goodbye to the family matriarch. From those being too affected by the situation to even speak to an emotional outburst at a wedding, The Farewell is filled with heartwarming moments.
Wang never lets her movie get depressing, however. It may be sad, but it is more about the power of family and tradition. The Farewell revolves around the obvious moral dilemma, but it never allows its characters or the viewer to wallow in pity. Many times, members of the family even chide each other for looking too down. The film asks if there is such a thing as a good lie. Whatever the answer, in the case of The Farewell, it is done out of love.
One of the reasons the movie is able to work so well is the strong writing. At its core, it is based on misleading a person about their impending death. It will not make sense to many and will seem right to even less. The Farewell is not trying to convince audiences what is the best decision. The movie is more about the difference between the East and the West, specifically China and the United States. It is never about trying to justify or condone a decision. The movie is not even asking the viewer to make a decision. This is a wise decision that adds to the frustration and heartache the Wang family is going through and makes the story that much more endearing.
The Farewell is filled with strong performances. Awkwafina’s role as Bille won her a Golden Globe for good reason. In a surprisingly subdued performance, the actress steals the show. Billie has a strong attachment to her grandmother and watching the interactions between the two are the highlights of the movie. Billie is not the stereotypical mopey thirty year old. There is an obvious sadness there, but she is also incredibly strong. She may have the most questions, but she also seems to be handling things better than anyone else. The audience many not always agree, but they will feel for her.
Wang’s direction is beautiful. Much of The Farewell takes place in Changchun, China. The setting is very modern, filled with bright neon light and large buildings. Wang frames the shots to give the city an almost ancient beauty. Trees and wide shots are used to accentuate the natural beauty of moments while more intimate scenes are shot from a closer vantage point. This is most evident in the poignant closing shot between Billie and Nai Nai.
The Farewell is a heartwarming movie that never talks down to its audience. The story takes on themes like family, love, morality, and death. It is incredibly moving, but is never afraid to take the time to laugh. Director Lulu Wang does a spectacular of adding to the beauty of the story. Led by Awkwafina, the cast does a magnificent job. The Farewell is how to make an emotionally powerful story the most impactful way.