Each year, there are movies that I feel were overlooked by major awards bodies. In this 5-part Oscars column called “The Case For…” I will discuss and make a case for a few of the movies released in 2019 that I think deserve attention as Oscar voting is just getting under way. Previous editions were The Lighthouse and Knives Out, today is…
THE CASE FOR… THE FAREWELL
Cinema, like any art, has always tried to tell us something about ourselves, about the world we live in, about our hopes, dreams, failings. Who are we? What is our path? What kind of people do we want to be? Great movies have always been able to pierce through our souls asking us those questions and leaving us with answers to give. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is one of those movies.
Even if we have never experienced what Billi (Awkwafina) goes through in the film, we can certainly relate. Most of us have had a close relative or friend struck by the tragic consequences of a fatal disease, leaving us powerless to the unspeakable suffering of our beloved one. What makes The Farewell so special is that, despite the premise, it doesn’t become a film about grief and loss, but rather about love, life and one’s own identity.
Raised in New York City by Chinese parents, Billi loves her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) more than anybody else. They speak on the phone in Mandarin, talking about their lives, about Billi’s aspirations and ambitions, about Nai Nai’s health and retiree life. What Billi doesn’t know is that Nai Nai, unbeknownst to her, has a few months to live, and that the whole family has organized one last family gathering to give her her farewell. She will not be told the truth about her stage-four cancer, justifying the family visit with an impromptu wedding by one of her grandsons living in Japan.
What can sound like an unreasonable premise turns The Farewell into a lyrical tale about family, identity, cross-generational struggles. Think of it as a kaleidoscope rather than a picture: it’s all about the point of view. Billi doesn’t accept the decision made by her family to hide the truth from her grandmother, and she doesn’t even accept the explanation given to her that it’s a Chinese tradition to tell a “good lie” in the last moments of a sick person’s life. This leads Billi to ask herself a question: who am I? She has been raised in America by Chinese parents, she is a dual citizen and she is bilingual, and yet this doesn’t completely satisfy the question. In an age where the concept of citizenship and nationality is being so heavily radicalized, while at the same time diminishing the value of cultural upbringing, Billi’s identity becomes a mosaic difficult to compromise with. Director Lulu Wang handles her portrayal impeccably, making her inner conflict with her own family and with her own roots vivid and believable.
The Farewell wouldn’t be as effective as it is if it wasn’t for Zhao Shuzhen’s performance. Her Nai Nai, and her relationship with Billi, is one of the most touching depictions of family love I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Sweet and affectionate, and yet resolute and commanding, Zhao injects the film with the transforming energy of life. In every smile and every line, there is radiant, unconditional love; her face becoming a painter’s work. While Billi is the lead character of the film, it is Nai Nai that brings it to another level and makes it memorable.
Every so often, comes a movie that surprises. At the beginning of the year, when The Farewell screened at the Sundance Film Festival, who would have anticipated its reception and year-long praise? Here I am, hoping it gets its recognition. It would be recognition for Lulu Wang, who has handled magnificently a very tricky personal story; it would be recognition for Awkwafina, who’s Billi is one of the most interesting characters of 2019; it would be recognition for Zhao Shuzhen, whose Nai Nai will always remain in my heart. It would also be an award for less discussed technical aspects of the film, such as the beautiful lighting work by Anna Franquesa Solano, whose pervasive bright light gives the film an aura of melancholy beauty, avoiding a more traditional somber approach. All these talented people gave us a gem for the years, where we can find, lose, search for ourselves, around the bittersweet farewell of a loved one.
THE FAREWELL SHOULD BE NOMINATED FOR:
Best Director – Lulu Wang
Best Actress – Awkwafina
Best Supporting Actress – Zhao Shuzhen
Best Original Screenplay – Lulu Wang