by Katherine Schloss
First of all, Lulu Wang- the director of The Farewell- is life partners with Barry Jenkins (who directed Moonlight) and I just think that that’s so special. Also, this is a PSA: Kanopy is amazing and I wish that I’d known about the free access that Berkeley students have to so many amazingly artsy and touching films earlier on in my college career!!
I watched The Farewell (on Kanopy) for the first time a few weeks ago. Ingesting a film that is inherently centered around death seemed like an odd choice at the time- especially because my viewings up to that date had been about the escapism that comes with rewatching comedies that are dear to me, such as New Girl (a show that truly never disappoints and makes me feel fine about my own quirks), or about diving headfirst into trashy reality television dating shows. After watching The Farewell, I felt reawakened and safe in caring about the drama that is whipped up in the squeaky halls of Grey’s Anatomy- despite the fact that the show has a death:episode ratio of about 1:1 (and that’s ignoring the episodes with the big, all-encompassing traumatic events).
My time during this god-awful pandemic has been largely defined by questioning how I view big life events as they are slowly reduced to their barest bones. Holidays become an excuse to dress up, and birthdays an excuse to stuff my face with cake. In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) travels from New York back home to Changchun in northern China to attend her cousin’s wedding- which is a ruse to get the whole family together before they lose their beloved matriarch. Her grandmother is dying, and she can’t tell her. As the film explains, this is not looked down upon in Chinese culture, where the family members are seen as being responsible for taking on the burden of death. The supposedly joyous wedding ceremony takes on a whole new meaning and purpose, becoming cloaked in death.
Death is treated as a taboo subject in the film, and yet it’s all that any of the characters can think about. Death has really been ever-present lately. The decaying of democracy. The death of plans. The death of certainty. And, more seriously, the threat of real, bodily death as we all face the virus that none of us can truly stop thinking about.
Billi is a young artistically-minded gal who is struggling to find herself in New York- a mindset that I’m currently inhabiting despite my noted physical absence from that city that I want to eventually find myself in. She finds herself confronted with her own individualistic existence in the face of the impending death of her grandmother. I felt Billi’s crisis. I understood her willingness to pick up her life and avoid it all by moving to another country, far away from all of her own problems and ready to care for someone else. I know that I’d do the same for my own grandma. But surprisingly, I felt that Lulu Wang wanted audiences to focus on the family dynamics at play rather than to zone in on Billi’s identity crisis. As I’ve found to be characteristic of A24 movies, The Farewell is beautifully staged with its soft colors- but I was surprised at just how mellow and subdued the film felt despite its exploration of complex topics such as what it really means to pursue the American dream, what it feels like to return home, and how to keep a lie for the good of someone you love.
Billi learns that, when entangled in a family, there are some things that you can’t plan, some things that you need to let slip into the hands of others despite a desperate need to have some semblance of control over your own life. She navigates her own role in a family that feels so unlike her in both action and attitude, finding that her own identity will always be an amalgamation of what she knows herself to be and what her family sees in her.
Without revealing too much, when Billi finally walked down the streets of New York and suddenly broke into dancing and screaming, it felt like an embodiment of what goes through my head as I put my airpods in and drown out the world. And I was here for it. All of it.
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