The Farewell (2019)
PG. This may be the most shocking thing that I've ever discovered in my blogging. There's an A24 movie that is straight up live-action and PG. In my head, it was R. But I don't think there is much actual content that would be considered R. Probably the biggest red flags involve smoking and drunkenness. But thematically, the movie deals with death. It is an oddly bleak movie, considering the cast. Still, I applaud the PG rating.
DIRECTOR: Lulu Wang
I'm still agog. I'm so used to movies being R simply because an adult audience would enjoy it more than a young audience. Yet here we are: an A24 movie about elderly mortality and it's a healthy PG. Thank you, President Biden. (For the Train-ers out there, first of all, gross. And second of all, I know that this movie came out during the Trump administration. It. Was. A. Joke.) But it is refreshing to think that A24 can release a movie without making it the most disturbing thing that I've seen that month. I know that there are a handful of A24 films that don't fall under the horror banner at A24. I think that 20th Century Women, my favorite movie that I watched last year, was an A24. I just like the idea that A24 isn't defined by just one thing.
My wife and I saw this trailer and, unfortunately, shoved it to the back of our minds. It's not like we didn't want to see it. If anything, it looked really good. ( NOTE: Weebly just lost all of my progress. I'm really not sure what my train of thought was here, but I'm going to try really hard to recover. ) But we were thinking that this was going to be a bittersweet dramedy. I wanted to feel phenomenally sad, but find myself laughing pretty often. I'm sure that there's an element to the final product of the movie of this, but it is a far bleaker movie than what I was ready for. You'd think where a movie where Awkwafina was leading the cast where there definitely are jokes that the movie would just be so dour.
Now, I have to make a confession. I'm not a perfect human being. I'm close, but I'm not a perfect person. I have to be aware that I'm going in with a certain bias. I've become more progressive when it comes to arranged marriages in other countries, for example. But as a Westerner, I know that I come with a cultural disposition about the role of the medical community when it comes to dying. That's what the movie is all about. The movie exists to talk about Western bias towards death in the West versus the East. In China, apparently it is commonplace to lie to the elderly who are dying about their own health. The problem is, I don't know if The Farewell properly sells this notion the way it thinks it does.
Billi was raised in the States. Everyone says her Chinese sucks. I can't comment on that. Let's say that her Chinese is better than my Ukrainian. She has the same values that I do at the beginning of the film. She finds the lie that her family tells her grandmother abhorrent. Heck, the inciting incident is her arriving to the fake wedding to disrupt the family's plan to keep this a secret. But through the course of the film, Billi comes around to the belief that she should be keeping this secret with the family. After all, apparently this is a true story and the real grandmother is still alive. But the movie doesn't really do too much to convince. There are moments, sure. There's a line that says that the grandmother also does this with her friends. She's a firm believer in lying about death. But really, it does kind of infantilize a person.
I know. I don't live in the culture. There's nothing that the terminal patient can do to get rid of it. But there's this whole string of lies that comes out of something that is considered a relatively good act. Part of that comes from the notion of a farcical marriage. Maybe that's one of the thorns that stick in my craw. The culture that seems to embrace the importance of tradition and ceremony has treated both death and marriage as fake and lies. There's a real choice that Hao Hao and Aiko are making. After all, if Nai Nai is still alive, are Hao Hao and Aiko still pretending to be married? Have they been actually married all along?
The funny thing is that The Farewell touches on something absolutely beautiful but never really sells it as well as the dourness of the story as a whole. Death can be a celebration of life. I swear, the movie gets really close to this idea. All of these people have gathered for this wedding and put on brave faces for Nai Nai, but they can't just be open with what they want to say. Because the lie is there, everything is about repression. When Uncle Haibin breaks down during his speech, it is considered unmanly and weak because he's very close to revealing the truth. There's a line in there somewhere about a terminal diagnosis is something that the family should take on instead of the patient. But that is also a weirdly perverted idea of what grief is. We mourn not for the sake of the deceased, but for the sake of the living. There's nothing to say that a person can't have a big party celebrating life before they die. Heck, if I get terminal cancer, I want people to tell me and then throw me a big party where I get to enjoy their company to the best of my ability. That sounds rad.
The movie also kind of plays fast and loose with the idea of consent. I'm not talking about the consent that comes with sexuality, but I'm talking about a patient's rights. Nai Nai's sister is the one who begins the process of hiding her terminal disease from her. But the first thing that Nai Nai says once she finds out that the diagnosis are just "shadows" is if her sister is telling her the truth. There's what we think that we want to know and then actually confronting that. We're meant to take care of each other as a collective human spirit, but that doesn't mean stripping power away from someone until later. It feels really glossed over. And this is where the movie really lets us off the hook. Nai Nai, in reality, survived for six years after the diagnosis and is still alive as of the release of the film. But how many people go through this and are confused and miserable. By giving Nai Nai this get-out-of-jail-free card, we never really get to see the true despair that comes from a mix of pain and confusion. It's a little unfair, and this is coming from a guy asking for a little more humor to the film.
I don't know. I knew what the movie was trying to sell me and I'm never sure it did. In terms of emotion and family, I got a lot of that. But the movie had a very clear goal and I don't think it nailed it with that one.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.