What has most prominently dogged the Academy Awards are the exclusions. Hence, The Unnominated, a bi-weekly series that examines and acknowledges films, performances and others that Oscar left behind.
I do not want to use this essay as a screed against the Director’s Guild’s apparent distaste for female directors, but coming off of the year that just ended, it is something that I must address. The track record speaks for itself – in 92 years only one woman has won the Oscar for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker) and only four others have been nominated. It’s a long and frustrating history, but in 2020 that record hurt more than ever since 2019 was a banner year for women behind the camera.
Chief among the unnominated was the director of my favorite film of 2019. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is one of the most emotional experiences that I have had in years, a cross-cultural examination of family, culture, history and personalities. Wang’s film is deeply personal but it bears a situation that is so universal that we can all say we’ve been there, and yet it is so specific that we learn something about a culture and its customs.
This deeply intimate story is Wang’s own story, of how her grandmother became terminally ill and how the rest of the family worked to keep this information from her. This Westerner learned in the film that it is a custom in many Chinese families, that when an elder becomes terminally ill with no chance of recovery, the family withholds the information from them in an effort to keep their remaining time from being filled with fear and indignity, that the extended family must bear the feeling of grief and fear.
Wang’s conduit into this semi-autobiographical story is Chinese-American Billi (played beautifully by Golden Globe winner Awkwafina) whose Americanization in New York has distanced her from her culture and from her extended family. She is an aspiring writer whose familial relationship are not exactly warm and fuzzy. her parents (Tzi Ma and Diane Linn) regard her life and her ambitions with a disapproving glance. When her grandmother – called Nai Nai – is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, they regard Billi as such an emotional paperweight and they don’t even want her to go home to China for fear that she will spill the beans. When she crashes the family gathering anyway, the great tension in the story falls right into place.
In an effort to bring the family together and keep the information from Nai Nai the family fast-tracks the wedding of Billi’s cousin, but they haven’t invited Billi. When she lands head-first into her family circle we can see the pain in her eyes. There we, as with her family, are worried that her sad and solemn face could give it away.
Distanced largely from a family that regards her as a dreamy-headed nitwit, Billi’s only real bond is with Nai Nai. They have regular long-distance phone calls that are quite lovely. It is here that we see the only real affirmation that Billi has in her life, and it is undercut by the fact that it will very quickly slip away. Here director Lulu Wang does an interesting thing. Billi is required to keep a straight face, but the director allows Awkwafina moments away from everyone else where she simply stares into the distance, trying to get a handle on the situation. Her face is blank but we can feel that inside her heart is breaking into a million pieces.
What is special about The Farewell is that Wang balances the drama with healthy doses of good humor (it’s good to laugh) whether it be an argument over buns during a trip to the cemetery; a clumsy ersatz photoshoot for the bride and groom that plays out in the background of a serious conversation; or simply the light gallows humor of Nai Nai’s breathing exercises, her thoughts on cremation or the Japanese vitamins that she takes – “They’re expensive so they must be good!” The humor takes the edge off and gives the story a sense of life.
The spark of life is brought on by actress Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai who occupies the center of this grand scheme and plays its most crucial role. Everyone mourns her situation, but since she is unaware of her cancer, she patters on through her daily ritual with vigor and energy. Nai Nai is a little firecracker, always ready with a strange observation or a life theory that seems so wayward that it might have come from Mars. She has a sweet, adoring face and a smile that is like the sun coming out. Yet. we sense that Nai Nai has outlived all of the games that young people play and all of the useless tricks that life sometimes offers. She has reached the age in which the act of withholding opinions is a useless concept. Her wisdom is the greatest reward for having lived a long life and the melancholy that it must very soon come to a close.
The other crucial role, of course, comes from rapper/comedian Awkwafina who has been good in comedic roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8, but here she’s making her dramatic debut, her performance is something special. Enveloped up in a large Chinese family that largely dismisses her, Billi shrinks in their presence, particularly in trying to understand the custom of not telling Nai Nai about her condition. She is bursting to have a moment of justifiable outrage but it just isn’t in the cards. She comes to understand that as a Chinese woman, Nai Nai is bound to the whole of her family, that they are her caretaker, unlike in American culture where the individual is responsible for one’s self.
This is a cultural awakening that takes Billi, and we the viewer, by surprise. There is an East-West contrast that doesn’t blame either side but helps us understand that cultures are simply different, that there is a difference in the ways in which one family deals with the relations and someone else may do it another way. In structuring the film this way, Wang has made a film that is sad but never maudlin, funny but never wacky. It walks a very fine line in that regard and lands at one of the most satisfying endings that you’ll ever experience. The Farewell is about life, and culture, and family, and humor. It’s about the inevitability of death but also the great truths of this thing called life.