Those differences sub in for the kind of family conversations that can turn a Thanksgiving dinner into a frosty affair. Out of Nai Nai’s earshot, all Billi wants to talk about with her family is whether or not this is the right thing, and it’s uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) who emerges as the most vocal proponent, discounting Western individualism for an Eastern idea of what’s best for the family. At a dinner, Billi’s mother Jian tells an affecting anecdote about being welcomed into a church soon after their arrival to America, but it falls flat with the Chinese listeners because why should that hospitality exist when it’s a family’s duty to provide it. Haibin stresses the Eastern elevation of the family over the individual, but in a complicating factor, he also left China for the greener pastures of Japan, seeing his mother a bit more than Billi’s father Haiyan but not by much. Wang instills all these arguments with a history that lurks beneath the surface of every statement and assertion of values, and perhaps reminding the viewer of their own family back-and-forths where abstract arguments are elevated by shared history and knowing which exact personal detail allows a person the opportunity to twist the knife and kick off the gravy fights.
These kinds of diverse stories attain their best power in the old saw about specificity leading into universality, and despite the expounding on of diametrically opposed cultural values, a Chinese family is a Japanese family is an American family. The Farewell achieves its universality in technical touches like its sound mixing, where the first reunion of everyone, initially mournful despite the ruse but soon overpowered by the joy of being all together, becomes loud but a specific kind of loud that signifies family gatherings. Someone starts playing music, there’s food everywhere, the room’s slightly too small, and a dozen different conversations are going on at the same time. It’s a party, but the different generations make it its own thing, and the volume is somehow an asset instead of a liability. Speaking of food, Wang pays close attention to the color and texture of the piles of delicious-looking dishes, evoking the pull of home cooking as much as the people who cooked it. Drunk uncles and drunk dads slouched forward to talk to each other almost face to face is something instantly recognizable no matter the nationality of the clan. These scenes, and there’s a lot of them, communicate what’s at stake beyond just the life of Nai Nai. If she’s gone, will there be a central place to have this kind of gathering again?
As the matriarch, Nai Nai is a glowing beacon worthy of a several thousand mile journey. Wang writes her as the grandma to end all grandmas, funny and warm and active despite the occasional coughing fit, stuffing food into her grandchildren’s mouths and red envelopes into their hands. Of her two grandchildren, she clearly prefers Billi over groom-to-be Hao Hao (Han Chen) who’s portrayed as something of a goof always a step behind. Awkwafina and Shuzhen have bottomless chemistry, with the former reverting to a childlike playfulness around the latter and Shuzhen meeting her there with a loving refrain of ‘stupid girl.’ The viewer doesn’t see Billi interact with anyone but strangers in America, leaving the possibility that her relationship with Nai Nai is the best one in her life. That she can contemplate its end while at the same time surrendering to the joy of being with Nai Nai is a trick the film plays, making the viewer forget The Farewell’s sad circumstances just as much as Billi is in fleeting moments.
Awkwafina broke out of ensemble comedies with her rubber face and specific delivery, but those roles weren’t much more than the kind Hao Hao is tasked with; laugh delivery devices. Here, she opens up completely new avenues for future roles, capable of anything that’s asked of her and more. She plays out internal monologues on her face, doesn’t overplay the inevitable big outbursts, and anchors the final shot, one of my favorites of the year. Surrounding her is a large cast, with only Ma recognizable to American audiences. He plays most of his character as drunk to hide his devastation, so Lin picks up the slack as Billi’s mother. With her husband largely incapacitated and unable to defend their family’s decisions, she gladly takes up this mantle, brooking no criticism of her and her husband’s choice to find a better life for her daughter. In a smaller role is Billi’s great aunt Little Nai Nai, played by Lu Hong. She has a very specific look with a Chinese afro, and dotes on her sister in relationship that is also colored by history and sacrifice. Hong is Wang’s real-life great aunt, and gives no hint of being a non-professional actor, as she’s just as naturalistic as the rest of this beautiful film is.
Wang creates an aesthetic that is reminiscent of a lot of other filmmakers, but the synthesis is her own. Slow-motion interstitials backed with a contemplative score call to mind Wong Kar-Wai, while the high-concept family drama evokes Hirokazu Koreeda or Noah Baumbach. There’s a Michael Haneke-esque nightmare scene, and, in the broader depiction of a China building high rises amongst personal homes that will soon be demolished, a shade of the cultural criticism of Jia Zhangke. Wang’s wearing her influences on her sleeve as she tells her own story, but those influences aren’t so overt as to be distracting. What can be distracting are some camera flourishes that don’t belong here, like a spinning camera to denote wedding reception drunkenness that was being communicated just fine by Hao Hao’s slackening face.
Despite the odd cinematic misstep, there’s very little fat on The Farewell. A scene I’m probably reading too much into based on my own personal interests takes place in a spa, where Billi and a cousin are cupped, a useless alternative medicine procedure that only serves to make its recipients look like the victims of a giant squid attack. The cousin has no problem with lying to Nai Nai, just as she’s completely comfortable with the magical thinking she insists that Billi indulge in with her. What’s left after for Billi are only the grotesque marks and her continued doubt. A lie agreed upon undergirds all of The Farewell, and Wang doesn’t push the viewer towards whether or not this was the right thing to do. All she does is show the smile on Nai Nai’s face, and lets the viewer wonder whether they want to be the one who takes it away from her. A-