Film Racket (July + August 2019): The Farewell, The Nightingale, and Gwen

(NOTE: These reviews were all initially written for another site. Here are links to the original reviews.)

Image courtesy of A24.

The Farewell

** ½ (out of 4)

In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Awkwafina (of Crazy Rich Asians fame) plays Billi, a 20-something, New York-based Chinese-American who’s trying to establish herself as a writer. As the opening scenes make clear, Billi has a tight relationship with her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), an old woman living in China whom Billi affectionately calls “Nai Nai” (Chinese for grandma). Put simply, however, the plot of The Farewell kicks off when Billi and her relatives learn that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

If this were a film about a Western family, Nai Nai would have been informed of this diagnosis, and she probably would have spent the rest of the film bemoaning her fate. But since Nai Nai and her relatives are Chinese, things turn out rather differently. First, instead of telling Nai Nai about the diagnosis, Billi’s relatives choose to conceal it. Second, they hold an impromptu wedding for one of Billi’s cousins (Chen Han) and his girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara) – an event that’s really just an excuse for all of them to get together and see Nai Nai one last time.

On the surface, this big lie might seem nonsensical and superfluous. In Billi’s eyes, it even borders on the criminal, seeing as it revolves around important information about Nai Nai’s own health. Yet despite Billi’s repeated entreaties, Billi’s relatives categorically refuse to tell Nai Nai the truth. In their eyes, the diagnosis is a “burden” that would prevent Nai Nai from dying in peace – and in a textbook illustration of Confucian notions of family and harmony, they believe it is their obligation to deal with this burden amongst themselves instead.

Among other things, The Farewell is meant to be a film about the complexity and importance of family. In this regard, however, it’s somewhat undermined by its caricatural portrayal of Nai Nai. For much of the film, Nai Nai conforms to the stereotype of the “sweet old lady” – namely, a cute and harmless old woman who alternates between making humorously indiscreet comments (e.g. “I wonder what they do in the bedroom,” “You’re fatter than they said”) and issuing Yoda-esque bits of wisdom. Because of this, the overall depiction of Nai Nai carries a fair amount of condescension, treating her as either the butt of every joke or an object of pity.

In a testament to Wang’s skill, however, the good things about The Farewell more or less make up for this problematic portrayal of Nai Nai. For instance, despite the narrative’s rather grim material, Wang avoids the temptation of making the film overly dark. In a lot of movies about “serious” topics (e.g. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Revenant), it seems like the scenes are designed to be perpetually depressing, as though a greater number of “sad scenes” were an indicator of greater quality. But like Manchester by the Sea, The Farewell mixes scenes of unhappiness with ones of unexpected humor, a fact that testifies to how situations in real life are rarely unequivocally bleak or unequivocally uplifting.

Its mix of comedy and drama aside, however, the main reason why The Farewell works is that it knows its stuff. As a Chinese-American, I can confirm that Wang gives a good depiction of the cultural differences between China and the United States. Like some of Ang Lee’s earliest films, particularly The Wedding Banquet, The Farewell has a perceptive understanding of why Chinese families insist on maintaining a semblance of respectability – and it also recognizes how durable this attachment to respectability is, even among Chinese people who immigrate to places outside of Asia. The Farewell may not be perfect, but when it comes to portraying the inherent tensions in the Chinese-American experience, it’s far and away superior to better-known films like Crazy Rich Asians.

Image courtesy of IFC Films.

The Nightingale

*** (out of 4)

“Grim” would be too gentle a word to describe what happens in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Set in 1825, the film opens by introducing us to Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irishwoman who’s been deported to a British penal colony in Tasmania. Not long after we first meet her, she’s raped by her supervisor, an abusive British lieutenant named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Subsequently, Hawkins and a few of his cronies gang rape her, and she’s made to watch as they also murder her husband and baby.

As horrific as all of that already sounds, The Nightingale doesn’t get any lighter from there. After destroying Clare’s life, an unrepentant Hawkins leaves the penal colony and travels north to Launceston, where he hopes to be promoted to captain. Left to her own devices, a vengeful Clare embarks on a grueling, days-long foot journey to hunt Hawkins down and kill him. To help her navigate the Tasmanian wilderness, moreover, she hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker whose male family members were slaughtered by the British when he was a mere child.

In terms of its worldview, The Nightingale will remind you a lot of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Just as Iñárritu did with the American West, Kent depicts Tasmania as a no man’s land, an impersonal environment that provides the backdrop for unremitting acts of human brutality. (Furthermore, as it was with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant, I can’t think of a single scene in The Nightingale where Billy and Clare seem happy.)

In The Revenant, this sort of relentlessly bleak approach gave the film an appearance of “seriousness” that belied its repetitiveness and unoriginality. While you could potentially say something similar of The Nightingale, I’d argue that Kent’s unsparing pessimism has more of a purpose than Iñárritu’s did in The Revenant. In creating such a dark depiction of 19th-century Australia, Kent corrects the romanticized, whitewashed depictions of British imperialism that we often find in traditional histories of the era. The end result may not be a particularly pleasant watch – but if nothing else, it’s an earnest attempt to rewrite history from the perspective of marginalized groups rather than that of white men.

This isn’t to say that every part of Kent’s rewriting of history works. Specifically, it stumbles somewhat in its depiction of Billy. Kent undeniably approaches him with good intentions, seeking to illustrate the ways in which he and other Aborigines were abused by white Europeans. But her portrayal of Billy still carries a slight air of exoticism. As Billy and Clare become closer and form a sort of friendship, the film occasionally slips into a condescending, “he’s human, too” form of sentimentalism that’s characterized many films about race relations (e.g. The Defiant Ones, Dances with Wolves) in the past.

All that said, however, the story at The Nightingale’s core – a woman seeks to become something greater than a sex object – is powerful and well-told. Franciosi gives a steely performance, making her character’s abrupt transformation from diffident prisoner to dogged killer quite believable. And despite the controversy surrounding them, the film’s rape scenes are actually very well-designed, in that they showcase the brutality of sexual violence without indirectly glorifying or eroticizing said violence (à la Straw Dogs). Watching The Nightingale may be painful in the moment, but when it’s all over, you’ll leave the theater feeling moved – and perhaps empowered as well.

Image courtesy of RLJ Entertainment.

Gwen

** (out of 4)

If you’ve ever read anything by Thomas Hardy, you’ll readily recognize the setting of William McGregor’s Gwen. Most of the film’s action takes place amid a majestic yet eerily impersonal mountain landscape in Wales. The one town we see is desolate and grimy, and its inhabitants are the kind of people who’d take pleasure in spreading rumors about you behind your back.

It’s in this dispiriting environment that we meet Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a teenage girl who lives with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and sister Mari (Jodie Innes) on a farm. Ever since Gwen’s father (Dyfrig Evans) went off to fight in the Crimean War, life has been bleak. His absence has not only left the three women feeling rather depressed, but they could also use his help around the farm.

The women’s situation only worsens, moreover, when they’re beset by a series of mysterious and creepy calamities. The crops they plant all die off. Something or someone kills off their entire flock of sheep in one night. Perhaps most disturbingly, Elen abruptly falls ill: she begins to suffer debilitating seizures, and at one point, Gwen catches her cutting herself.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Gwen is quite similar to The Witch, Robert Eggers’ folk horror hit about a Puritan family in New England. Both films depict rural families who’re assailed by seemingly supernatural forces, and they also both see horror as a metaphorical tool for examining societal problems. The similarities between the two films even carry over into their styles, seeing as they both feature long takes, gradual camera movements, and persistently dark lighting.

What eventually sets these two films apart from one another, however, is the clarity of their respective themes. In The Witch, it was always clear what its horror elements were critiquing. Through dialogue and well-placed point-of-view shots, the film examined traditional attitudes towards sex, suggesting that men concocted the concept of witchcraft to suppress the “threat” of uninhibited sexuality.

In Gwen, meanwhile, McGregor repeatedly hints that the protagonists’ misfortunes are symptomatic of larger societal ills. Intermittently, there are dream sequences in which Gwen’s father limps towards the camera in a tattered red uniform, all while cannons boom in the background. At other times, Gwen and Elen are shown attending church, where they listen to sermons about the “dark evil” in the earthly world. And we also learn that there’s a greedy businessman who wants to buy Elen’s farm and mine the land underneath it.

In moments like these, McGregor gestures towards critiques of British expansionism, Christianity, and capitalism. But what’s frustrating is that the film never expands on these critiques: instead, it dedicates the bulk of its time to atmospherically depicting Gwen’s dreary life on the farm. Partially as a result of this, the whole film feels curiously incomplete, a would-be work of social commentary that makes little effort to ground its narrative in any kind of social, political, or historical context.

In making these criticisms, I don’t want to dismiss the many things that Gwen does well. Worthington-Cox easily holds your attention, and as mentioned, McGregor creates a very evocative atmosphere, one in which a constant, indescribable dread hangs over everything the characters do. What you find yourself wanting, however, is some sign of what this evocative atmosphere is ultimately meant to illustrate. It might be a cliché to put it like this, but Gwen is a film that invariably values style over substance.