Blog Directory CineVerse: Speaking the universal language of loss and love

Speaking the universal language of loss and love

Monday, June 28, 2021

We can usually sniff out cloying, over-dramatized, sentimentalized, and implausible family dynamics in movies pretty easily, as these bad filmmaker habits unfortunately persist. That’s why it’s refreshing to experience a picture like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which depicts the universality of navigating troublesome familial terrain with such admirable dexterity. CineVerse had the pleasure of parsing through this film two weeks ago (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here), and a précis of our conversation follows.

What did you find revelatory, refreshing, remarkable, or original about The Farewell?

  • It isn’t afraid to tackle a thorny topic like death and family grief with sincerity and realism (evoked from the personal experiences of the director and her grandmother, whose cancer diagnosis was hidden from the grandmother by the director’s extended family) but also with humor and grace. Ponder how, despite being a three-hanky-type movie, there are several comical scenes and funny bits.
    • Movie reviewer James Berardinelli wrote: “It’s probably strange to call a movie about illness and death a ‘feel-good experience,’ but Wang has pitched the film perfectly in this regard. Movies about cancer almost always involve chemotherapy and suffering. Movies about death are often suffused with grief and sorrow. The Farewell eschews those genre tropes and instead focuses on existential issues while being honest about the characters, their situations, and their reality. The end result is life-affirming and the average viewer is likely to leave the film feeling uplifted.”
    • Film critic Christy Lemire wrote” In sharing her story with us, Wang achieves a masterful tonal balance throughout “The Farewell.” She’s made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés. She finds a variety of moments for her actors to shine within a large ensemble cast. And she’s pulled off one of the most perfect endings you’ll ever see.”
  • The filmmakers don’t seem to have an agenda here; they appear to be telling the story without bias, preachiness, or judgment about whether Eastern values or Western values should take priority; the film isn’t casting aspersions about “sins of the father visited upon his child,” or trying to play into the paradigm that each subsequent generation improves upon the one before it. Even less sympathetic characters like Billi’s mother are given well-rounded treatment (we later see her mother tearing up after they bid farewell to Nai Nai, for instance).
  • There is a possibility that Nai Nai figures out that she has cancer but has decided to not talk about it. Consider that she also obscured the truth about her husband’s terminal cancer from him, and she appears to be sharp and observant.
  • The film opens with an ironic disclaimer: “Based on an actual lie.” These words run contrary to what we have come to expect from films that instead start with the words: “Based on a true story.” By bookending the movie with these words and, at the conclusion, footage of the director’s real-life grandma (who survived her bout with cancer), we benefit from more intimate and honest storytelling, entrusting Lulu Wang and her collaborators to give us some truth about their real-life experiences.

Themes woven into The Farewell

  • Bridging cultural and generational divides. Billi serves as a surrogate for the audience, our guide on this journey between three generations, two cultures (East versus West), and two countries, America and China, which she has both called home at one point. Billi’s return to the homeland of her birth results in culture shock, as she sees how much things have changed in China since she was a child, yet she’s happy to be reuniting with her extended family – although not under the best circumstances.
    • Interestingly, the filmmakers have characters who speak and sing in both Mandarin and English and use Chinese-performed covers of American songs.
  • The morality of whether it’s better to lie and spare someone from worry and suffering or tell them the truth, which they have a right to know. The movie challenges you to ask yourself: What would you do in this situation if you were Billi?
  • Coming to grips with our mortality and the unavoidability of loss and grief.
  • Reconciling the present with the past. Billi is wistful about her childhood memories of her grandmother and living in China. But she has to accept that time has moved on and her grandmother isn’t always going to be there for her.

Similar films

  • Ikiru
  • 50/50
  • Tuesdays With Morrie
  • Terms of Endearment
  • The Bucket List

Other films by Lulu Wang

  • Posthumous

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