If you’ve been to see a film in Berlin in the last, ooh, 5 months or so, you’ll have seen the overlong trailer for The Farewell, so will have some idea about what its all about. Billi has lived in New York for most of her life bur feels called back to China when her favourite grandma (Nai Nai) has just had a diagnosis of cancer.
The family, following Chinese tradition, decides to hide the news from Nai Nai. Not just that, they organise a wedding for Billi’s cousin, just so the family can all return to pay their final respects to Nai Nai. Billi is shocked, and says that if you did this sort of thing in the US, you’d be locked up.
This is a promising basis for a comedy of opposing cultural expectations. It doesn’t resort to the white saviour trope of having a European or US-American discover how crazy those foreigners really are – Billi was herself born in China and is conflicted between her Oriental roots and Western upbringing.
Moreover, the key argument – is it better to inform people of fatal diagnoses or let them go peacefully to the grave? – is a legitimate one which could do with further discussion. It is a shame, then, that apart from the scenes which are cherry picked for the trailer, the film seems more interested in showing the sumptuous wedding celebrations than have anyone actually talking to each other about their misgivings.
I must admit that I am in a minority on this one. The Farewell met with almost universal critical acclaim, which particularly commended the universality of the message. Now, if by this you mean that many Chinese people also see the family as a heart in a heartless world, then sure, it addresses universal themes. But ultimately, the final message isn’t much more than “be nice to your granny”.
My scepticism is in part more about me than it is about the film. The bonding scenes between Billi and Nai Nai are just way outside any of my own personal family experiences. And so much plot hangs upon the feelings of anguish that I just got annoyed. I get it, that everyone made a decision and that this decison was difficult, but its been made now. Just live with it and stop moaning. (I am also available for marriage guidance help).
Yet the hurdle that I could not leap was the false dichotomy that was put forward between “Western” and “Eastern” values. The whole plot rests on the assumed different attitudes in China and the US towards dealing with the terminally ill. In China (so the argument goes) the community takes on the burden, in the US the individual has the right to full disclosure.
Under this dichotomy, you’d have thought that the Chinese people would have at least some sort of coping mechanism for dealing with “their” system. Yet every last one of them (with the exception of the oblivious Nai Nai) goes through the fake wedding on the verge of tears. Which may be how things are, but if its like that, why do they insist so dogmatically on preserving tradition?
In summary, The Farewell is another conservative film in radical clothing (which is probably why the liberal reviewers loved it). It ticks all the multi-cultural boxes (which, to be honest is a Good Thing. Its a sign of how dismal the casting of non-white actors in Hollywood is, that the fact that this film was made at all is a step forward). Yet the ultimate message is to reinforce tradition and the family.
This is a shame, as the trailer gave the impression that the film was going to be much more daring. Billi’s conflicted feeling of nationality could have led to an interesting discussion about loyalties and perceived values. And yet there is no character development, and no-one really changes their opinions – or has these opinions challenged. These leaves us sitting on the edge of the discussion, like we’re on the table at weddings for people who don’t really know either the bride’s or groom’s side (I know that table well).
Let’s finish on a positive note. The acting is uniformly excellent. Awkafina is great as Billi, as is Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai. And Tzi Ma is superb as Billi’s father, who left China for a reason, but still feels beholden to his family there. And while this film didn’t do it for me, its streets ahead of the Awkafina’s last film, the stereotype-laden Crazy Rich Asians.
Maybe things can only get better.