19.12.2019 - 11:00 Uhr
The Farewell: Pro and Con
OUT NOW! A bittersweet tragicomedy with emotional content that never fails to ring true, or is this cross-cultural China-set portrait of a family in crisis merely a surface-level brush stroke?
PRO: Say hello – David Mouriquand “Based on an actual lie”, Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical ensemble piece The Farewell is an affecting portrait of a family who come together when faced with a crisis: grandmother/matriarch Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family decides to keep the diagnosis a secret and stage a wedding as a pretext to gather the troupes in China before the inevitable happens. One member finds the deception hard to understand: New York-based Billi (rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina), who shares a privileged bond with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao). This bittersweet tragicomedy could have easily turned into a sappy melodrama, but for a film about lies, its emotional content never fails to ring true. Partly because it is written and directed by Wang, who originally discussed the events of her life in an episode of radio programme This American Life, certain details are beautifully observed, while the sharp humour isn’t forced and is carried out by a terrific ensemble. Awkwafina proves that there’s so much more to her than her exuberant antics in Crazy Rich Asians, and first-time actor Shuzhen Zhao plays the character of Nai Nai to touching perfection. Their performances match the script’s skillful handling of a culture clash: put in blanket terms, the Western tendency to freely over-share, which differs from the bottling-up of emotions frequently seen in Asian cultures. The character of Billi personifies a co-existence of this cultural chasm, and the film manages to explore specific traditions that divide East and West while also addressing the universal white lies we all craft at one point in our lives in order to spare loved ones any unnecessary pain. It is perceptive up to a point but, crucially, expertly eschews emotionally-manipulative family-movie clichés. The end result will genuinely tug on your heartstrings in the very best of ways. No word of a lie. CON: Wave goodbye – Yun-hua Chen There is no denying that Lulu Wang’s visual language in The Farewell is carefully designed and her gaze towards day-to-day objects and trivialities in life is tender; elderly people sit on an abandoned sofa on the street, a middle-aged woman hangs her family’s clothes outdoors across the building’s entrance, and a swaying stripe of fabric next to an air conditioner’s air outlet signals the blowing of cool air. There are also some well-paced humorous moments, mostly based on cultural differences from Billi’s (that is, Lulu Wang’s) ‘foreign’ viewpoint as an Asian American. Yet the director’s outsider perspective throughout the film is exactly what makes the film cringey. For the local milieu in the backdrop, the script does not show enough in-depth understanding beyond superficial customs and communication. Most characters, ranging from Billi’s parents, her extended family to a local hotel’s employee, are blurred into bland caricatures that lack flesh and blood. Not only are the dialogues stiff and dry, but the supposedly complicated dynamics between family members is also left unnuanced. Several key dinner table scenes are only surface-level brush strokes of cross-cultural interactions – this is especially unsatisfying if we think about what Ang Lee managed to do with his debut features Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet. Meanwhile, the attempted comment on rapid socioeconomic changes in China has been reduced to several tracking shots of new building blocks and Billi’s fleeting nostalgic laments regarding her childhood. Speaking of which, while Awkwafina’s performance in English is natural and fluid, her delivery of Chinese lines feels like recitation. Her difficulties in the language – and hence cumbersome performance – interrupts the narrative flow at times and lessens some dramatic impact. No doubt a brilliant actress, she is sadly a fish out of water in the Chinese language.
The Farewell | Directed by Lulu Wang (US, China, 2019), with Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, X Mayo. Starts Dec 19.
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