Friday 27 September 2019

Grandma's party: "The Farewell"

After Crazy Rich Asians - just broad and bland enough for mass acceptance, of greater interest for what it represented than for what it did - some refinement. Lulu Wang's The Farewell is the kind of delicate, accomplished familial drama that Ang Lee used to make in the days before he too was fatally seduced by spectacle. It will build towards a wedding banquet at which an elaborate subterfuge threatens to be exposed, yet before that a bittersweet tone is established that is recognisably Asian (connecting the Chinese-American Wang to the Taiwanese Lee and the Japanese Hirokazu Kore-eda), and before that, there is a custom that needs to be carefully explained to the palefaces in the audience. The custom, apparently common within Chinese families, is not to inform elderly relatives of terminal diagnoses of cancer, the better to spare the patient the stress and distress that might contribute to a further deterioration of their condition. The lie is of the little white variety; "a good lie", as the surgeon treating the film's greyhaired lynchpin Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) refers to an earlier situation with his own ailing nan. Thus our heroine Billi (Awkwafina) joins her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) in setting out from New York to her Chinese birthplace of Changchun, keeping up the pretence that they've arrived at Nai Nai's home for a family wedding, and not to be closer to someone who has no idea she isn't long for this world.

Having hit upon this very human deception, Wang busies herself gathering truths about this clan. What she notices first of all - and this may come as no great revelation to Asian viewers - is that the sons and daughters of the diaspora are often closer to their grandparents than they are to their actual folks, who've jabbed and prodded them into standing on their own two feet. Zhao's smashing turn, as someone you know you're going to miss should she disappear, makes the bond between Billi and her Nai Nai (the Mandarin for "gran") wholly credible, but the film's never sappy about it. Rather, Wang makes a joke of Nai Nai's indefatigability, her refusal to be controlled. To the horror of her relatives - who cannot bring themselves to break the news - she insists on carrying out her part in the wedding preparations, and remains switched on and possessed of empathy enough to wonder why everybody's looking at her askance. Admittedly, this is a pretty PG-rated depiction of stage-IV lung cancer - a few telling coughs here and there are as grave as it gets - but there's something amusing in the way the lie seems to eat away at the family more than the cancer does at their charge. Keeping the disease at bay allows Wang to set up an involving debate between the very much Westernised Billi, who's as baffled by the cover-up as non-Asian audiences may be, and her elders, who - caught between two worlds - more readily defer to tradition. The result: scenes that are quietly, gently funny - I suspect the film will have done its most consistent business in matinee screenings - but which can't or won't shake the basenote of sadness that follows from knowing a loved one is about to depart.

Wang sustains this mood via thoughtful, Lee-like editing and camera choices, always seeking out the most conflicted face in any given situation. The whole film plays something like a competition in which we wait and wonder which family member is going to lose their nerve in the face of this adorable old dear and let the cat out of the bag first; in the meantime, the expert ensemble - a whole troupe of Chinese and Chinese-American performers who haven't had the roles their lengthy careers merit - choke back the awful truth and mine the nuances Wang writes around it. Around Awkwafina, there is a marked sense of relief: for a while, I was worried the American cinema wouldn't quite know what to do with a performer this loose-limbed, unconventional in some respects, supremely matter-of-fact in others. (There's a touch of Natasha Lyonne in her attitude and vocal inflections, and the movies haven't known what to do with Lyonne, either.) The answer, it transpires, is cast her well. The Farewell is a far better vehicle for this performer than were her scrappy scenes in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8, offering her at least two terrific moments: the first bashing out a torrid melodrama at Nai Nai's piano, her codified way of breaking the bad news (or getting out what had previously been pent up), the second a monologue on all the things she's missed about spending time with her grandmother in the land of her birth. What Wang is indirectly dramatising here are the feelings one has when you go back to the place you turned your nose up at as a shit-for-brains teenager and realise that it's full of real, perishable people doing the best they can with the lives they have; that's at least as moving as anything in the main narrative throughline.

Said throughline is laid out with an absence of false notes, and the assurance of a tale that would appear to have been much rehearsed within family circles long before anybody had the bright idea of committing it to paper; the movie has its basis in a story Wang told on radio's This American Life, and you can bet your bottom dollar the writer-director spent much of The Farewell's press tour addressing the extent to which it is autobiographical. Either way, the approach brings us unusually close to all her characters - not just Billi and Nai Nai, but the rather bland bride and groom, demonstrating a benign cluelessness in regard to the lie as they do in life, and the elderly male neighbour who pops round to devour Nai Nai's home cooking (there's an element of foodie porn comparable to Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman) before shuffling back next door without a word. Close enough, in the end, to see our own parents and grandparents in them. That's why The Farewell has won over so many hearts in the months since it debuted at Sundance in January, and why it will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead - possibly all the way round the 2019-20 awards circuit. Early days to make too specific a set of predictions on that front, perhaps, but here's a film that starts with the culturally specific, then transcends it, raising along the way an irony that is not unamusing in itself: that after all the hubbub in media circles about the necessity of finding and boosting new voices, one of those new voices should have gifted the troubled American film industry with its most satisfyingly old-fashioned crowdpleaser in years - a film that unapologetically reaches out to the entire family.

The Farewell is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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