September 21st 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Federal Government should abolish Renewable Energy Certificates

ENERGY BP annual Review shows consumption, production up

CANBERRA OBSERVED NSW Labor caught in Panda's paws doing 'whatever it takes'

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM Religious discrimination bill: A litany of questions

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Boris' brinkmanship shakes up Britain, EU

WATER POLICY Angry farmers protest over Murray-Darling Basin Plan ... again

TECHNOLOGY Are we the dumbest devices in the room?

HISTORY AND POLITICS Lord Acton, nationalism and multiculturalism, Part 2

LITERATURE D.H. Lawrence: The Modernist in exile

MUSIC Dialectical transcendence

CINEMA The Farewell: Elegant and bittersweet

BOOK REVIEW Owning up to market imperfections

BOOK REVIEW Heroism and faith under tyranny

BOOK REVIEW The love that comes after love is gone


EDITORIAL Gladys Liu controversy ignores reality of China's interference

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The Farewell: Elegant and bittersweet

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, September 21, 2019

Death and dying, love and loss, are universal features of the human experience. But how they are dealt with differs with different people and different cultures.

Lulu Wang’s beautiful and bittersweet The Farewell invites the audience to expe­rience grieving in a very different way from that of the modern West. It tells the story of a Chinese family, spread across different continents, who discover their beloved grandmother, their Nai Nai, is dying and, rather than tell her, they schedule a wedding to bring everyone together to say goodbye.

Rapper and actress Awkwafina stars as Billi, a bright Chinese-American still working out what to do with her life. She adores her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) and is devastated by the news. She is even more shocked by the family’s decision to keep it from Nai Nai, but apparently that is the Chinese way. Instead, the family organises a wedding banquet for her cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara).

The contrast between what everyone is feeling and what they should be feeling could not be greater. Nai Nai’s sons, Billi’s dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma), and Japan-based older brother and father of Hao Hao, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) are barely able to keep it together most of the time. Same with Hao Hao. And Aiko doesn’t even speak Chinese.

It is the women who keep it together, especially Nai Nai’s sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong, the director’s own great aunt), who has looked after Nai Nai for some years. And Nai Nai herself, as one of those irrepressibly cheerful and cheerfully bossy women of a certain vintage, is perplexed as to why everyone looks so sad, when they are there for a happy occasion.

Lulu Wang has crafted a beautiful and heartfelt film, shot through with almost as much humour as sorrow. It is deeply personal and for good reason – it is based on what her own family did when they heard of her own Nai Nai’s illness. The production’s blending of fact and fiction is akin to what the film itself depicts. They shot the picture in Nai Nai’s own neighbourhood with Little Nai Nai largely playing out what she did in life.

The visual and sound design is stunning in the way it works as a unified whole. It is reminiscent of what Stanley Kubrick did in Barry Lyndon, in that many shots are framed almost as moving paintings. They express meaning and emotion through the use of colour and composition and silence.

But even the dialogues are shot with an awareness of the construction of an image that makes it do more than just tell the story. Alex Weston’s score harmonises eloquently with the visuals, reinforcing or contrasting the emotion of the scene as needed.

The story itself is elegant and economical. Wang has told it before as part of NPR’s This American Life and it was that telling that led to film studios becoming interested. Thankfully she avoided the “Hollywood option”, which would have seen the story become a bloated and blunt rom-com. The economy of the story, its lack of exposition, means that its raw emotion comes to the fore, unfiltered by preconceptions of genre.

One of the beauties of stories is how they make an audience live through an experience, feeling with the characters as they feel. While stories do have a forming and educational role, it is not the same as that of a schoolroom or a textbook. This means they cannot always resolve philosophical questions as neatly or universally as one might like.

The tension in the film between Billi’s desire to tell Nai Nai, and the family’s belief that it is their duty to carry the emotional burden themselves, is a real one and it is still unresolved for Wang.

But while that might be the philosophical question behind the film, the heart of the film is about love and loss. A priest I know comments that it’s wrong to call a funeral the celebration of a life, because you shouldn’t wait till someone dies to celebrate their life.

The Farewell may be “based on an actual lie”, but it aims at a deeper truth – that is that our relationships, our love for each other, give our lives meaning. We should celebrate them while we can.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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