Movie Review: The Farewell (別告訴她)

With the huge success of CRAZY RICH ASIANS last year, it’s finally dawning on Hollywood that audiences want to see more diversity on the big screen. Part of that diversity is reflected in this year’s surprise hit, THE FAREWELL, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January. The deeply personal tale is written and directed by Chinese-American Lulu Wang (王子逸), who tells audiences at the outset that the story is “based on a true lie”.

Billi (Awkwafina, PARADISE HILLS; CRAZY RICH ASIANS; OCEAN’S 8) is a 30-year-old Chinese-American post-graduate artist (of some sort, though it’s never told which sort) who is struggling to make ends meet in Brooklyn. When news comes from China that her beloved Nai Nai (Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen/趙淑珍), or grandmother, is dying of lung cancer, the family makes the decision not to tell the old woman that her time left is short. Instead, they hastily arrange a wedding between Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han/陳涵) and his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara/水原碧衣), which gives the family a happy pretext to head to Changchun (長春) in northeast China to visit with Nai Nai one last time. Billi, though, isn’t invited as the family thinks she’ll betray her emotions to granny. Having spent all but her first six years in the US, the family thinks Billi has become too Westernized to cope with the Chinese custom of keeping the dying in the dark. Billi, however, isn’t going to let her grandmother pass without her saying goodbye and she gets on a plane, throwing her family’s plans for a stress-free farewell out the window.

THE FAREWELL provides audiences with a wonderful if bittersweet look at Chinese family dynamics, and the traditional customs and beliefs that have, for the most part, disappeared in the Chinese diaspora. Wang spends a fair amount of time showing how the face of Changchun is changing with rapid redevelopment, no doubt implying that those traditional customs and beliefs are under siege at home too. Not surprisingly, Wang has put the spotlight squarely on her avatar, Billi, who wants to be seen as both American and Chinese. Her family, though, won’t have it. To them, she’s American. (To be fair, they don’t see her cousin Hao Hao as Chinese either. Whether they consider him to be Japanese is a different matter that unfortunately isn’t fully explored.) Awkwafina, in her first time heading up a dramatic comedy, continues to defy being pigeonholed as a certain type of actress. A fluent Mandarin speaker (her father is Chinese and she studied in Beijing), her Chinese is excellent except when it’s curiously not. In the scene where she’s walking with her uncle, her repeated pronunciation of “I know” in Chinese (ji dao) is somewhat wonky. Similarly, it’s more than a little strange when she asks her father how to say “congratulations” in Chinese. Not only would that be something she would have learned when she was two years old, she most definitely would have heard it hundreds of times over the years including at that wedding. It may be that Wang wanted to say that no matter how good Billi’s Chinese is, it would never be good enough for her family. There’s clearly a double standard at play here because my Chinese isn’t as good as Billi’s yet I know from experience that Chinese people are always falling over themselves to compliment me on my linguistic ability.

While it’s great that this film gives audiences something that we typically don’t see on the big screen, Wong’s characters are sadly underdeveloped and the story holds to a very narrow tonal range. One scene involving Billi and an English-speaking doctor could have gone somewhere but Wang lets that opportunity pass by. Similarly, Hao Hao and Aiko have very little to do. It would have been nice if Billi and her cousin could have had at least one conversation about being an outsider. Performances, however, are generally good with Zhao, who is unknown to Western audiences but is well known at home in China, sparkling as the family’s matriarch. Hong Kong-born Tzi Ma/馬泰 (ARRIVAL), Australian actress Diana Lin/林曉傑, both of whom know first-hand what it’s like to be a Chinese expatriate, add to the story’s authenticity as Billi’s parents. Now the question comes as to whether Wang will be able to turn this success into something greater or if she’ll be a one-trick pony.

If you have a chance to see THE FAREWELL, certainly check it out. For some strange reason, it hasn’t come to Hong Kong but it is available on a number of streaming services.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, December 27th, 8:30 am HK time!

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