The Farewell review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Throughout The Farewell, there’s a somberness not for the desire of a needle to drop but that the needle will never drop. There’s an uncomfortable and heartbreaking level of repression present within the film that shreds the soul when realizing that nothing all that truthful can come out from a family and culture that would rather main dignified than emotional. It’s too hard to bear and even those seasoned enough in shirking their true feelings are still chipped and unsure about how viable these choices are.
Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), a grandmother in China, is dying of lung cancer but nobody will tell her the truth. Her more able-bodied sister receives the news from the doctor and lies to Nai Nai that her CT scan only revealed “benign shadows.” The rest of the family learns the truth and figure they only have one last chance to be with Nai Nai. Under the allusion of a staged wedding, the family spread across America and Japan venture home to spend some time with Nai Nai in a bittersweet reunion. The last to learn of this is the struggling Billi (Awkwafina), hard for cash and her career going nowhere. When learning this news, she knows she has to go, even though her emotionless parents are reluctant with how easily Awkwafina gets emotional over someone she has grown so attached to.
The whole family assembles and grandma is ecstatic to have them all come together. On this seemingly joyous occasion, nobody will tell Nai Nai the bad news and indulge her smiles and banter. Billi can’t stand this charade but decides to keep it up because everyone agrees that it’s best Nai Nai keep cheerful to the very end and not wallow in her mortality. They all put on a cheerful face and the long visit is one of joy laced with the bitter realization of the truth.
Throughout the film is an admittance of a cultural aspect that goes unchallenged. Billi is told by her mother that “Chinese people have a saying; when you get cancer, you die.” It’s a somewhat silly line but also carries an uncomfortable truth of knowing that death is coming and that it is not fought with admittance but repression. It’s damaging but this is perhaps how we view all mortality including our own. We don’t think about it until the very end and distract ourselves with other thoughts and sometimes lies. Because when we break and think about it, the joy evaporates and fear sets in for the hereafter.
We see a few members of the family crumble, especially at the wedding. None will reveal the truth but most will turn into a sobbing mess when addressing Nai Nai. They can’t help it; they can’t hold it back. In China, based on the conversations of the family, crying is not a dignified trait and families will sometimes hire professional criers for funerals to do all the emoting for them.
There’s a somber warmth to The Farewell that made the film quickly work its way into my heart, only to shred it by the final act. The most heartbreaking moment of the picture is not the death of Nai Nai, which never comes. It’s a relatable scene where the family says their quiet and somewhat passive goodbyes to Nai Nai as they pile into the car to head to the airport. Nai Nai bids farewell with her cough and the family is silent for the car ride back, all the sadness behind their eyes.
The Farewell is easily one of the best films of 2019 for its deeply moving human nature and a genuine appeal to our repression of emotion and fear of mortality.