Yesterday, my friend and I caught a movie at the cinemas. I’ve only heard about The Farewell last week, having stumbled upon the trailer. We both liked what we saw and agreed to see it. Having a July release in the States, Farewell had just opened here last week. Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive. Awkwafina, fresh from her breakout roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich, was praised for her standout performance. Critics have noted that the small-budget picture was a breath of fresh air against the cavalcade of summer blockbusters. My friend admitted that his co-worker raved about Farewell, though he had heard of this production ‘two months ago’.
The majority of the film was in Chinese (with English subtitles) and this struck me. Only the first fifteen minutes or so was set in the Big Apple; the rest was shot in Changchun. Obviously, I did not know that the writer-director was Chinese-American. Farewell also had an all-Asian cast, which included veteran actor Tzi Ma. Farewell tells the story of Billi (Awkwafina), an aspiring writer who returns to China with her family in order to give her Nai Nai a proper goodbye. This was upon learning that the latter had stage 4 lung cancer. Apparently, in China, relatives do not inform their kin if they have a terminal illness. Thus, the film shows a clash of cultures between East and West. There are chopsticks as opposed to spoon and fork. Moreover, the next generation such as Billi and her cousins lock horns with their elders. At one point, Billi’s uncle says that Americans put themselves first while the Chinese put family first. As my friend pointed out, it’s a case of the individual versus the collective. There is constant debate on whether living in China is better than the US, and vice-versa.
The family converges on Changchun in the guise of celebrating Hao Hao’s nuptials with a woman from America. While the planning occupies them, Nai Nai is their real concern. They talk about their fears, their future without the matriarch, life, and death. They stay together as this reunion is decades in the making. They ache more for Nai Nai than for themselves. Haibin, the eldest son, even gives a teary speech during his son’s wedding. Before the end, her clarifies that they were ‘tears of happiness’. Meanwhile, Billi is conflicted: whether to inform her dear Nai Nai of her malady or obey the wishes of her family.
The slow pace also struck me. Billed as a comedy-drama, this was more deliberate than comical. Of course, Farewell had its fair share of laughs. I remember this cute kid with a trasher haircut saying ‘Don’t call me Little Bao. I am just Bao!’ Most of the spoofs stemmed from the cultural differences. There is a special place for Awkwafina in Nai Nai’s heart, always looking out for her. The former repays her grandmother’s love, volunteering to stay in Changchun and care for her. At times, Billi struggles to communicate in Chinese. This is both a blessing and a curse. She is able to hide things from her grandma, as the latter cannot understand English. However, her limitations hurt her. For instance, she has to ask the equivalent of congrats while making speech on stage.
Lost in Translation
My pal commented before the movie that Billi is a very different role from Peik Lin in Crazy Rich. While the latter was riotous, Billi is rather reserved. With her simple look and unassuming persona, Billi is Peik Lin’s alter ego. That doesn’t remove an inspired performance from Awkwafina. The movie reminded me a bit of Lost in Translation, a slow drama with a punch, the female lead giving a laudable effort. Like Farewell, a female director (Sofia Coppola) was also at the helm. Both projects also garnered universal acclaim. Though critics and audiences have adored Farewell, this wasn’t the best film of the year. While there are similarities, this is likewise no Dead Europe. I saw that one with the same chum a while back. I recall it as having a very disappointing ending.