Last night I finally saw Lulu Wang‘s The Farewell, which A24 will open on 7.12. It’s brilliant — the most emotionally affecting, most skillfully assembled family drama I’ve seen in many years, and never in an overbearing way. At times Wang’s touch is light and darting, and other times matter of fact. But each and every scene hits the mark, and the ending nails it perfectly (and at the same time delivers an unlikely, last-minute surprise).
Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American 20something, flies to northeastern China after her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. The tension stems from a family decision not to tell Nai Nai of her condition, as they’re afraid that knowing will hasten her demise. I still don’t understand how an 80something cancer victim wouldn’t be acutely aware that something dark and dangerous is growing within, but this was the only roadblock…call it a speedbump.
I was deeply impressed by Anna Franquesa Solano‘s widescreen (2.39:1) lensing, which is unusual for a film that’s almost entirely about MCU and CU interiors. And the editing (by Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman) is fleet and to the point.
I was a touch suspicious of those Sundance raves and that 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating, but now I understand. I really think The Farewell belongs in the family-drama pantheon along with Little Miss Sunshine, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Descendants, The Grapes of Wrath, Kramer vs, Kramer, Parenthood…it’s one of those.
It addresses all the basic sorrows and frustrations affecting older members of any large family — death in particular but with a particular focus on the gulf between traditional Chinese culture and U.S. culture and a certain melancholy affecting those suspended between the two.
Awkwafina‘s lead performance will definitely snag critics awards in December and be Oscar-nominated the following month — no question.
The Farewell mostly happens in Changchun, a large auto-manufacturing city in northeastern China. To go by Silano’s lensing, it’s nothing but dull, uniform, rotely designed high-rise apartment buildings, one after another after another. You’re saying to herself, “My God, who could live in a high-rise nightmare city like this?” The Changchung Wikipage says it’s “one of [China’s] four National Garden Cities, due to its high urban greening rate.” You’d never know this from watching The Farewell.
I mentioned a couple of months ago that the Farewell trailer “strongly indicates that family members (Akwafina included) are making very little effort to mask their sadness over their grandmother’s situation, to the extent that Nai Nai seemingly has no choice but to ask ‘what’s wrong?’ What’s the point of a family deciding to keep bad news a secret if they’re going to convey their true feelings this blatantly? Wouldn’t everyone try to mask their feelings with too much gaiety?” I still feel this way.