Thursday, November 5, 2020

Death Becomes Her?

Films: The Farewell
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.

One of the phrases that is becoming more and more popular online and elsewhere is that representation matters. I get it. As someone who has been commonly represented in film, I understand exactly why other people want to be represented as well. I can go back to the very early years of movies and see plenty of cis/het white guys as the hero. But I also see how atheists are typically portrayed in movies. If we’re not the villain, our reasons for atheism are stupid. We always come back to the fold. And when we don’t, we’re portrayed as autistic (Bones from the eponymous show), smug (Sheldon Cooper), or brilliant but assholish (House). So it’s always refreshing when we get an Ellie Arroway from Contact or Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. A movie like The Farewell, as steeped as it is in Chinese culture, is one that could easily be told about a lot of families. That the characters are Chinese allows for that culture to be used to tell the story. That these characters are Chinese does not (or should not) in any way detract from our ability to empathize with them.

The basic story is this. Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York, where she and her parents moved years before when they emigrated from China. Billi learns that her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) are going back to China for the wedding of her cousin. A little bit of prying reveals a deeper and darker truth. Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of stage-4 lung cancer. The family has decided not to tell her that she is dying and are essentially staging a fake wedding to get the family back together one last time to say goodbye to their matriarch.

Billi is told not to attend. She has no real poker face when it comes to her emotions and she will give away the game. She also can’t really afford the airfare back to China, but she goes anyway. And really, that’s the plot. Billi reconnects with her grandmother and deals with the family idea of not telling Nai Nai that she is dying. It’s a movie about reconnecting, about family and culture, and about dealing with loss in a world that seems full of it.

Awkwafina, who had up to this point more or less made her living on screen in comedic roles like Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8 steps up the drama game here. There’s plenty of comedy in this movie, naturally, but the bulk of the film is her finding a way to spend time around her grandmother without spilling the family secret. She is brilliant in this, and while the cast is good top to bottom, it is Awkwafina who is the focus of the film, and through whose eyes we see what happens.

While a lot of this story could be told in a lot of contexts, The Farewell is very much rooted in Chinese culture. At one point, Billi complains to her father and uncle that it’s not right to keep the diagnosis of lung cancer from Nai Nai. Her uncle tells her that this might be what happens in America, but in China, it is the family’s duty to bear the burden of the diagnosis collectively. A conversation Billi has with a doctor essentially gets to the same point—he says his family has done the same thing. Eventually, Billi learns that Nai Nai hid her grandfather’s diagnosis from him before he died.

What works here is just how real this feels. I can’t entirely connect with the idea of keeping someone’s diagnosis from them, but I absolutely understand the pressures that we have put on us by family. There is a family situation I have dealt with for several years that is sort of a horrific open secret among several of us regarding one of my siblings. It’s a harsh and terrible truth that some have decided to keep from others in the family on a sort of need-to-know basis. I’ve had to keep quiet about it, and at times, it eats me alive. I completely understand the stress she is under and exactly what would happen if she says something to “betray” the family.

In fact, I have only one real complaint about The Farewell. A substantial amount of the movie is in Mandarin, and is naturally subtitled. The subtitles are white, and in many cases, they are placed over a white or beige background. This makes it very hard to read them in places. I don’t understand why the people who make subtitles are so often this bad at it. A drop shadow, a box to put the text in, a black outline around the text—all of these would solve the problem and can’t be that difficult to achieve.

Regardless of this, The Farewell is a lovely movie, one that very much should have been talked about come Oscar time, but naturally was not. Given Oscar’s racial problem, one that is particularly evident when it comes to Asian actors, this snub is hardly surprising.

Why to watch The Farewell: A completely relatable story about love and family.
Why not to watch: Sometimes the white subtitles on mostly-white backgrounds are very hard to read.


  1. This is a film that I want to see and it looks like the kind of film my mother is interested in seeing as she's always interested in Asian culture.

    1. It's very, very good. It's also entirely safe to watch with your mom. No weird sex scenes or unpleasant topics aside from end of life issues. And no real language--it's rated PG.

  2. I really wanted to see this back when it came out, but didn't get to. Then I forgot about it to be honest. I needed this reminder.

    Have you seen The Invention of Lying? I found it to be a really interesting atheist leaning film.

    1. I have. I watched it during the early days of the pandemic. Thanks for the reminder--it does lean that way thanks to Ricky Gervais.

  3. I enjoyed this movie, and maybe even shed a tear or two, but there's that reveal that happens during the ending credits that left me feeling very ambivalent about what I'd just watched. The reveal almost seems to invalidate all the stress and heartache the story just put us through, although I'm guessing the director's intention was more to leave us on a happy, life-affirming note rather than on a gloomy, depressing one. So I came away with mixed feelings about the reveal, but I appreciated the story that came before it.

    1. I agree. I didn't mention that coda for that reason--it seems to invalidate the movie in a lot of ways.