The phenomenal success of Shõgun, James Clavell’s best-selling 1975 novel and 1980 TV miniseries about an English pilot drawn into a power struggle in Japan at the dawn of the 17th century, served to establish a number of beliefs in the American popular consciousness about Asian cultural norms. One of these was the premise that, in a densely populated country where houses have walls made of paper that afford no privacy, pretending that something negative or forbidden isn’t happening is a socially acceptable and often wise way to proceed. The Western ideal that the truth must always come out was depicted as an alien and naïve notion in the Far East.
Never having had an opportunity to visit Asia, I didn’t acquire a clear sense in all the subsequent decades of how accurate this picture was, or how well Clavell did his research. I still don’t know if he was right about Japan in the year 1600. But there’s a terrific new indie film out by Lulu Wang, The Farewell, whose central premise firmly reiterates this idea as a core component of Chinese social structure. Maybe it really is an “Asian thing.”
The Farewell is strongly autobiographical, evolving out of a memoir that Wang first iterated as a segment on the NPR radio program This American Life. The director was born in China and emigrated to the US at age 6. In 2013, her beloved grandmother, still living in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and expected not to survive more than a few months. A wedding of a family member was hastily arranged to provide an excuse for a big reunion of relatives who had moved to other countries – without telling their Nai Nai (Mandarin for paternal grandmother) that she was dying.
The Americanized Wang was astonished by the elaborate charade that was arranged to spare the elderly woman this unpleasant news. Only by revisiting the city of her birth was she able to make any sense of it. The Farewell is a lightly fictionalized version of that story, starring the rapper/actress Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians) as Billi, Wang’s alter ego. Upon breaking the news to Billi, her mother Jian (Diana Lin) explains, “Chinese people have saying: When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them. It’s the fear.”
The role of Billi was a challenging one to take on for Awkwafina, whose onscreen reputation has been built so far on playing zany, offbeat characters. Billi, by contrast, is a brooder who never felt quite at home in the US but has absorbed its values. The Farewell requires her to scowl a lot, disapproving of the deception in which even Nai Nai’s doctors are complicit. How will her grandmother know that it’s time to say her farewells, to set her affairs in order?
As it turns out, Billi is the one who needs to learn to appreciate the wisdom behind the family’s rallying to make Nai Nai’s presumed last months on Earth as happy as possible. Most of this learning curve occurs during one-on-one interactions between grandmother (veteran Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen) and her favorite granddaughter, which also serve to familiarize Western audiences with some nuances of life in post-Cultural Revolution China. There’s a scene in which Nai Nai is chivvying the surly Billi to engage with more enthusiasm in a daily exercise routine, which reminded me of a sequence involving tai chi practice in another indie movie shot in China, in 1986: Peter Wang’s A Great Wall. The humor here is similarly wry and gentle.
The subject of how best to cope socially with death and other unpleasant realities in Chinese culture is broached several times in The Farewell’s narrative, obliquely enough that Nai Nai can cheerfully avoid thinking that it applies to her in the foreseeable future. The extended family gathers at the tomb of Billi’s grandfather, covering it with food offerings, burning paper effigies of things he might like in the afterlife and invoking his blessings on the young couple about to be wed. Before leaving the cemetery they cross paths with another clan who have hired professional mourners to weep as loudly as possible, as a way to honor the more recently deceased. And at the wedding reception, which affords any attendee a chance to get up and deliver the equivalent of a best man’s toast at an American wedding, freely flowing alcoholic beverages lubricate outbursts of long-repressed emotion from several characters. It’s all theater of a sort, giving Billi much to think about.
A Farewell was mostly shot in Changchun, with a predominantly Chinese cast, and most of the dialogue is in Mandarin. So much of the story is told in facial expressions and body language that you won’t mind, even if you don’t much like reading subtitles. The acting is wonderful across the board, and Awkwafina and Zhao are extraordinary together. You’ll come out wishing you had a sensible, upbeat Chinese grandmother like that. Best of all, this is a story that seems utterly plausible even if you don’t know the culture intimately. That makes its emotional depth all the more poignant. I feel pretty confident in terming this the not-to-be-missed small-budget indie sleeper film for the summer of 2019.