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By Your Side: The Farewell Review

This film can be watched on Kanopy, Amazon Prime, and Showtime.

The Farewell follows a young New Yorker, Billi, (Awkwafina) who travels to Hong Kong to see her grandmother who has been diagnosed with cancer, for the last time, while taking part in a lie where her family has chosen not to tell the grand mother of her diagnosis and plans a wedding for the rest of the family to see Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) one last time. In the process of maintaining the farce, Billi, and her family members move towards securing their own identities.

From the beginning of the film, the ideal of being intertwined with someone else, no matter the distance, is shown to us through endearing and tear jerking conversations between Billi and her grandmother. It's not so much that what they're talking about gets you worked up, or it might, but more so it's the way director and writer Lulu Wang frames the two, using wide close ups, minimal sound, and cutting back and forth at facial expressions, and parting words of concern, wisdom, and affection. When Billi joins in with the family in Hong Kong against the family's wishes for fear that her emotions will give away the secret, and alert Nai Nai that something is wrong, the film's transition continues and happens to rest for awhile in a situation of who's way of dealing with Nai Nai's diagnosis would be the overall best plan: Billi's transparency, or the family's holding onto the news--which makes the film feel like a family member who's just stepped in to your grandma's house for Christmas Eve dinner unexpected, and uninvited--the situation delves into a slightly awkward but delightful time. Wang's rendering of Billi's attempt to keep her emotions beneath the surface, have fun with Nai Nai, and please her family, creates a warm, loving, but lightly anxious feeling throughout, and you more so are hoping someone might tell her, and maybe not tell her, and the family member's personal issues grow more interesting to watch.

Throughout the film, Wang utilizes situations, locations, and objects such as the family scurrying up and down stairways trying to reach the hospital, long shots of individuals or groups walking down long stretches of walkways, or Billi's family traveling between columns at a cemetery to visit Billi's grandfather's grave, a POV shot of an EKG machine with Nai Nai sliding towards a big circle, or a revolving dinner table full of food and different dishes, to show that the universe, as well as our mildly educated actions, always moves us in and out of each others lives and our own personal states, and that their can be no transformation without giving life to that which you are trying to transform from. Be it ideas, or be it family, or ideas about both of those. You need other people and other people need you.

Also, characters often repeat phrases and questions to each other, and in every new time this happens it's said differently, or asked differently, and that happens to work in the film to provide each character with a way into seeing each others suffering, initiating a look at their own suffering and keeping the secret-- the latter part mostly means continuing the transition for themselves, not solely to accept Nai's Nai's death, but moving into new states as people.

There is a place in the movie where a recurring question: Will Nai Nai be told about her diagnosis? asked by Billi, which is given the same answer but in different ways and from different family members, gets a more definitive reply. When the family accompanies Nai Nai to her doctor's appointment for a check up, the family and Nai Nai's doctor, nudged by Billi to speak in English so Nai Nai can't understand, answers that question that is on the back of everyone's mind--the character's and the audience's that is. They keep the diagnosis from the ill family member as a way not to cause that loved one to carry the burden of knowing, and that way they are really caring for the ailing person and helping them live without stress or fear. We see that the characters through having to continuously keep their emotions down, while spending time around Nai Nai and also when drawn out by Billie in conversation, that the fears and love felt for Nai Nai allows them to become more finite in their stasis in life, and in themselves. A good example being Billi's Mother, Jian, (Diana Lin) and for some, like Billi's Uncle, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) who it seems the keeping of emotions covered and expressing visible discomfort, somberness, outwardly expression, and tearing up at random times--the act of carrying another person's burdens--the characters start to move towards solidifying their own way of moving through the world. Billie, through maintaining her own idea to be up front, while trying to please her family by playing the role, and when in trying to do the right thing by Nai Nai, begins to transition over into her family's way of dealing, she too, starts a process towards becoming her own person.

The Farewell is filled with scenes where we see characters maintain the farce around Nai Nai that are able to bring out a combination of laughter and sadness, much like spending time with a loved one who you must confront hard things with. From endearing scenes where Billi practices Tai Chi with her grandmother, to a montage comprised of Wang's unique style of editing where Billi's cousin , Hao Hao (Chen Han) is laughing and getting drunk at a table at surrounded by relatives and Nai Nai at his wedding to help him deal with the anxiety of maintaining the lie, his status to come, as a person without a grandparent, and Nai Nai's death, easily brings the audience into the many emotions a character is feeling in just two funny but emotional minutes.

In The Farewell we see Awkwafina give a remarkable performance. Similarly in her performance in Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina's acting goes outside of and past the director in a way that is immediately compelling, scarily familiar, and enhances seriousness and the human quality of the film, inching toward a level of auteurship--(this word meaning one who is the author of the film, and who the meaning of a film lies with, and who has a distinct, recognizable style shown over multiple films). It is like she's being completely herself on screen, almost making it an Awkwafina film and owning the meaning, and creating the life and depth of the film with her acting. Diana Lin gives an amazing performance as a near opposite of Awkwafina's character, who remains strong but gets emotional in her own way, making her character one to get behind and adding in a another kind of realness to grieving a loved one, that is not the expected reaction like Fina's, but equally human. These two portrayals are seemingly different, but feel like, when both actresses are on screen together, and their characters talk to each other or talk amongst the group, they are in a way creating off of each other, and challenging the other to see important differences in how the other is reacting to the circumstances, but also seeing a part of their process that allows each other to witness the effective way in which the other is helping Nai Nai.

These two women's performances and the story also bring us deeper into the human condition and into the personal, where these two elements depict a glimpse for the audience at this truth that, when we see more than ourselves, when we engage more with a person literally in front of us, and go past what we want to see, we as people can value other people more, as well as value our own abilities at the same time.

The Farewell is about the truth in the fact that one can not grow with out being yourself, but also taking a step back and combining what one learns from other people. There is nothing wrong with doing the right thing even if it may become challenging to other people and to you, and also taking the lead on what you are doing, if you know or think that what you're doing can benefit the group as well as yourself. The most important thing is that we keep on living and working in and through the changes, and try to enjoy ourselves and each other while we're still here.


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