Truth, representation and perspective
*Spoiler Warnings, I discuss scenes not shown in the trailer*
Since seeing the trailer about a month before the movie came out, I knew it was something I had to see. The Farewell (2019) is directed, written and inspired by real life story of Lulu Wang about a young Asian female torn between telling the truth of her grandmother’s cancer and her family’s decision to not say anything to their matriarch.
Billi, played by Awkwafina is a Chinese immigrant living in New York. She finds out from her parents that Nai Nai is sick and the family goes to China to ‘go to a wedding’. The wedding of her only cousin is the family’s excuse to gather Nai Nai’s two sons, Billi’s dad and uncle and their families to visit Nai Nai, one last time. They discourage Billi from coming because she wears her heart on her sleeve and if Nai Nai sees her, Billi will reveal the truth. Billi, of course shows up in China, despite her parent’s request. Throughout the film, the audience gets a view of what life is like in China, immigrant and cultural differences and most importantly the inter generational relationships within this Asian family.
I had to prepare myself for this film. I nervously decided to go to the theatre, knowing I was ready to cry. Asian representation and grandmother/granddaughter relationship is just too similar to my reality. I prepared myself by bringing tissues and hoped no one would sit close to me to hear me sob, if it were to happen. Naturally, within the first (probably) 10 mins of the film, I was pretending to touch my face just to prevent the tears streaming down my cheek. Please note, this isn’t a movie where everyone in the audience cries, it is just too close to my heart that it affected me.
This film captures a slight ominous tone before a relief nearing the end. The visual and auditory storytelling pairs well with the screenplay. This is exhibited through the cinematography and sound design.
The long takes and music stretch out the emotions that portray distance and the inauspicious, uncertainty of what will happen to Nai Nai.
I thought the cinematography was creative. In particular, long shot pans of the characters running from one end of the screen to the next. In one scene, characters humorously and anxiously run from left to right of the screen continuously trying to hurriedly get to the hospital. While in another scene, Billi frantically runs stressfully from right to left of the screen to get results so that they can be altered before Nai Nai sees them.
Another long take to mention is the emotional goodbye when Billi and her family leave for the airport. Billi is in the backseat of a cab watching her grandmother wave goodbye. As the cab drives off, we see them both cry until the cab turns a corner, Nai Nai is no longer in frame. This is a beautiful, non verbal expression of hurt and emotions released. Like most Asian families, emotions are not expressed outwardly. This is especially shown when Billi’s mom finally shows her true feelings as she cries in the cab. An emotional moment the audience gets to see that Billi’s mom was holding in how she felt the whole time.
There are clips in China, mainly in the wedding scene, where you see the performers and servers taking breaks during the reception. I am not sure why this is happening. We see a lion dancer smoking and a waitress on her phone. There is no action between the main characters. Perhaps this is a glimpse at how life still happen amidst the drama in this family.
The use of sound is also valuable to the tone of the film; allowing for seriousness and bouts of laughter to break the tension. This is perfectly expressed by Wang in a CBC article, where she says “In real life, she added, “we are not given a prescription of how you’re supposed to react and how you’re supposed to feel.… No one tells you, ‘This event is going to be a comedy.’” The music was filled with classical, slow violins playing; ominous sounds that you may hear at funerals. The tone throughout is an uncertain amount of joy and discomfort. You just never know when the truth will get spilled out or if Nai Nai gets worse.
There are several scenes where birds recur. I wondered if there was any symbolism Wang was trying to exhibit. In an interview with Slate.com she says:
“I wanted to put something that could potentially stand for something magical as a sign, but I wanted to do it in a very realistic way. I think (the) signs are only signs if you believe that they’re signs. You can make it what you want to make of it, and that very much relates to this lie with Nai Nai, because people are going to believe what they want to believe… If you are a spiritual person and you look for things, you may see signs. But if you don’t believe in that, then you’ll just go, “Oh, it’s just a bird.” So that was my way of reemphasizing this idea of perspective, that things are based on how you see them.”
The film addresses the main question of whether or not the truth should be told. There is a scene where Billi approaches her dad and uncle about this. They explain that withholding the truth is actually helping and in support of Nai Nai. While Billie argues that by not telling Nai Nai they are hurting her. Just as Wang expresses with birds, it is all about perspective.
Wang does a great job at conveying the unknown and uncertainty throughout the film. The use of long shots and music support the storyline’s question, if there is such a thing as a ‘good lie’.
The Farewell officially played in Canada on July 12, 2019. It received recognition and picked up by their distribution company, A24 at Sundance Film Festival. On Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds a 99% score with critics and 87% with audiences.
Overall, I recommend this film. It was encouraging to see more female Asian representation on screen, especially with relationships and storylines I can relate to. I especially enjoyed and was pleasantly surprised by the sweet Italian rendition of “Without You” sung in Italian played during the credits.
Images were taken from Google.
Do you think there are ‘good lies’ to protect loved ones? What is the difference?
In my opinion, the best line in the movie is when Nai Nai says to Billi, that ‘it isn’t what you do in life that matters but how you do it’ and ‘that one’s mind is powerful’. What do you think of what Nai Nai says?
What do you think about symbolism and perspective in this film?
Why do you think they chose an Italian song during the credit and not Mandarin (the language spoken in the film)?