The Frustrating Reductiveness of The Farewell

Image courtesy of A24.

** ½ (out of 4)

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell tells the story of what its opening title card calls an “actual lie.” The protagonist, a Chinese-American woman named Billi (Awkwafina), learns at the film’s start that “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen), her paternal grandmother, has terminal cancer. In a decision that leaves Billi shocked and angry, however, Billi’s relatives decide that it’d be better to conceal this diagnosis from Nai Nai – and to create an excuse for everyone to see Nai Nai one last time, they hastily arrange a wedding in Nai Nai’s hometown between one of Billi’s cousins (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara).

As one of the biggest “finds” of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Farewell certainly has a lot working in its favor. For starters, it offers an admirably even-handed depiction of the differences between Chinese and American worldviews. As mentioned, Billi and her relatives sharply disagree on the merits of lying to Nai Nai – Billi thinks it’s cruel and unethical, whereas her relatives believe that lying would spare Nai Nai unnecessary pain and grief. In a testament to Wang’s fairness and perceptiveness, the film depicts this disagreement without being judgmental, portraying both sides of the argument in such a way that they both seem reasonable.

Its depiction of cultural differences aside, moreover, the film also has a good understanding of what it’s like to be a Chinese-American visiting China. As someone with relatives in China, I have to say that I readily related to the emotional upheaval that Billi undergoes when she returns to Nai Nai’s hometown for the wedding. In particular, towards the end of the film, there’s a shot of Nai Nai waving goodbye to Billi that had me close to tears – not because anything particularly significant “happens” in the shot, but because the image was such a vivid reminder of my own experience saying goodbye to my grandparents.

Image courtesy of A24.

And yet: despite The Farewell’s many strengths, there are a couple of things about it that temper my enthusiasm. Broadly speaking, one of Wang’s goals in the film is to offer a loving and nuanced portrait of a Chinese family. There’s no scene in particular that explicitly announces this objective, of course. But you can grasp Wang’s intentions from the number of scenes that show Billi’s relatives talking, arguing, and otherwise interacting with one another.

Ultimately, however, The Farewell’s attempts at making a family portrait are undermined by two related problems. The first is how Wang uses humor. As you quickly come to see, The Farewell is what you’d call a “dramedy,” a film that mixes “sad scenes” with ones that try to strike a lighter, more comedic tone. Crucially, however, the humor in these comedic scenes often comes at the expense of one or more of the characters, and that eventually makes the film’s portrayal of these characters feel a tad condescending.

The problems with The Farewell’s humor are perhaps best exemplified by Nai Nai, who, alongside Billi, is one of the two most important figures in the story. With the exception of one “wise old woman” speech that she gives at the film’s very end, Nai Nai’s statements and behavior are frequently the butt of some kind of joke. Among other things, we’re made to laugh at her unknowingly tactless comments – for instance, her observation that Billi is actually “not skinny” – her unabashed fondness for henpecking others, and her extreme advice, like her suggestion that Billi not wear earrings because “people will rip them right off your ears, and you’ll have to go to the hospital for surgery.”

It’d be a stretch to say that Wang’s intentions vis-à-vis Nai Nai are willfully malicious. But the film’s use of humor nevertheless encourages us to take a somewhat reductive view of Nai Nai. She becomes little more than the sum of several, sometimes incongruous stereotypes about old people – for instance, stereotypes that old people are clueless but sweet, that they like bossing people around, and that they have no filter. Thanks to these humor-induced stereotypes, Nai Nai ends up being a caricature you feel sorry for rather than a person you truly understand and respect, and this implicit form of condescension ultimately hampers Wang’s attempts at creating a loving and nuanced family portrait.

Image courtesy of A24.

Beyond the way it uses humor, the other problem with The Farewell is that most of its characters aren’t developed well. As suggested in the past few paragraphs, this is sometimes because the film’s humor simplifies characters into demeaning caricatures. For instance, a young cousin of Billi’s is rather derisively stereotyped as a fat and lazy video gamer. Similarly, the bride and groom are mocked as consistently bewildered dolts who, by virtue of not speaking good Chinese, always seem to be two steps behind everyone else.

Even characters who aren’t the most frequent targets of the film’s humor, moreover, feel thinly sketched. Aside from the fact that she’s a struggling writer, for instance, we learn very little about Billi’s life in America and how it’s been shaped (or not shaped) by her Chinese background. Something similar holds true for her parents (Diana Lin, Tzi Ma): they’ve lived in both China and America, but despite the film’s interest in cultural conflict, we don’t learn much about how they’ve personally processed and dealt with the differences between their two cultures.

None of this is to suggest that Wang should or could have spent time fully developing every single character in the film. But it’s nevertheless remarkable that many of Billi’s family members could be fully described in one or two sentences, just like I’ve done here. In the end, this pervasive one-dimensionality runs counter to Wang’s objective of offering a nuanced and thoughtful portrait of family.

Image courtesy of A24.

At this point, I ought to stop and clarify a couple of things about my argument. First, although I’ve been fairly critical of The Farewell’s comedic aspects, I’m not saying that the film should’ve avoided humor altogether. On the contrary: it’s a good thing that Wang didn’t succumb to the temptation of making her movie unvaryingly “serious.” Just like Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, another film about grieving family members, The Farewell recognizes that it’s hard to classify situations in life as purely sad or purely happy, and that understanding is reflected in the film’s decision to blend humor and drama.

The issue with The Farewell, then, isn’t so much the use of humor itself as the kind of humor it uses. Whereas Manchester by the Sea generally avoids ridiculing its characters – its humor typically emerges from awkward situations and misunderstandings instead – The Farewell directly targets its characters’ mannerisms and personalities. In comparison to something like Manchester by the Sea, then, The Farewell’s brand of comedy feels ever-so-slightly patronizing in tone.

Image courtesy of A24.

The other thing I should clear up about my argument concerns Nai Nai. With regard to the film’s depiction of her, some have suggested that Nai Nai is more intelligent than she looks. While she’s often portrayed as laughably clueless, it’s possible that she knows that she’s dying and sees through everyone’s attempts to hide this fact. In that sense, her comically clueless behavior shouldn’t be taken literally. Rather, it’s just a persona she adopts so that her relatives feel less bad, and by virtue of engaging in such a sophisticated act of deception, she becomes something greater than the somewhat demeaning caricature that she otherwise seems to be.

Even if you acknowledge this argument’s potential validity, however, The Farewell’s treatment of Nai Nai still proves problematic. Although the film leaves open the possibility that Nai Nai knows more than she’s letting on, it doesn’t explicitly address the issue, such that it’s never clear just how much she really knows or doesn’t know. Because of this, the film could easily be interpreted in several ways. Like I initially did, you could very well interpret the film as being about a clueless old lady who doesn’t know what’s happening to or around her. Just as legitimately, you could interpret it as being about a sophisticated woman who knowingly puts on appearances to spare her family extra pain.

In this sense, what’s puzzling and frustrating about The Farewell is that it leaves Nai Nai’s true nature open to speculation. As mentioned, this information is anything but unimportant: without it, it’s just as easy to see Nai Nai as a caricature of cluelessness as it is to see her as someone more complex. In light of this consistently ambiguous stance towards Nai Nai, it’s as though the film weren’t interested enough in her to fully develop her, make clear what she’s thinking – and thereby completely “shield her” from the possibility of looking caricatural. Ultimately, I’d say this is all just another manifestation of Wang’s general disinterest in fleshing out the film’s characters.

Image courtesy of A24.

As I noted earlier, The Farewell hardly qualifies as a bad film. Wang has a strong understanding of the cultural differences between China and America, and in many respects, her portrayal of the “Chinese-American experience” is very poignant. Yet in spite of Wang’s efforts and good intentions, The Farewell’s depiction of Billi’s family ultimately feels limited, primarily because it relies on superficial – and at times derisively caricatural – character sketches. When compared to a fiasco like Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell is easily one of the better films about Asian-Americans to come out in recent years. But that unfortunately still doesn’t make it quite good enough.

***

The Farewell (2019)

Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen

Running Time: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG, “for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.”

Produced by: Lulu Wang, Daniele Melia, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Anita Gou

Written and Directed by: Lulu Wang