The Farewell


A happy family portrait.

(2019) Dramedy (A24) Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhou, Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Yongbo Jiang, X-Mayo, Hong Lu, Gil Perez-Abraham, Becca Khalil, Ines Laimins. Directed by Lulu Wang

 

It is inevitable as we journey through our lives that we will lose loved ones. The natural order of things is that we age, grow old and die so those who were put on this Earth before us finish their cycles before we do. We have to come to grips with their mortality and in doing so, our own. It is hardest sometimes for those who are young to truly understand that those around them are neither invincible nor immortal.

Billi (Awkwafina) is an underachieving Chinese-American writer whose parents emigrated to this country when she was a little girl, tearing her away from the culture she knew and the family she loved, in particular her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhou). Even as a grown woman, she still telephones her grandmother regularly and remains close even though she hasn’t seen her in years.

One day while home doing laundry, she discovers her father (Ma) disconsolate in his bedroom and demands to know what’s wrong. It turns out Nai Nai – his mother – has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and doesn’t have long to live, maybe only weeks. Billi is devastated of course but she is further thrown for a loop when she discovers that Nai Nai hasn’t been told the truth about her condition – a Chinese tradition in which the family takes on the burden of knowing and worrying about the impending mortality of a loved one.

The marriage of a hapless cousin, Hao Hao (Chen) to a Japanese girl, Aiko (Mizuhara) is used as an excuse to bring the family to Changchun where Nai Nai lives. Billi is eager to go to say farewell to her grandmother but her mother (Lin) is adamant; Nai Nai must remain ignorant about her condition and Billi is sure to give away her grief, being an emotional sort.

Naturally Billi goes anyway and Nai Nai is absolutely delighted. She’s totally in her element, planning everything having to do with the ceremony and the reception, arguing with the caterers over whether crab or lobster is to be served. Billi agrees to hold her tongue but it’s hard not for her to be melancholy from time to time. It’s the rest of the family though that has trouble keeping their emotions in check.

Billi has issues regarding the move to America. China has changed to an incredible degree and isn’t a country she recognizes. Her connection with Nai Nai is her connection to her heritage and it is part of her identity. The Farewell allows us – and director Lulu Wang, whose life and experiences this is based on – to explore the tightrope that Chinese-Americans must often walk to reconcile the cultures of their background and of their present circumstances.

Awkwafina, a rapper who started out as comic relief in films like Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians is absolutely devastating here. This is the kind of performance that establishes careers and can net an actress plum roles. Billi is a nuanced individual, caught between two cultures and not really sure which one she identifies with most. Her self-worth has taken a beating, mostly due to her overbearing hyper-critical mother. She believes strongly that her Nai Nai should be told the truth about her condition and she has trouble justifying the lie, yet she keeps a big secret of her own. At the end Billi embraces both sides of her identity and it is beautiful to see. Zhou and Ma give Awkwafina some great support and the onscreen relationships feel totally real.

It is no secret how much the Chinese culture values family above all else and for those Westerners who don’t understand that, the difference between East and West is succinctly explained here. Even so, there is a universal aspect to families; we all have members of our family we treasure and others we see only on rare occasions (and that’s just fine with us) while there are still others we barely know. I think you’ll find that the family gathering here will seem very familiar in a lot of ways to most of you, even if there are some cultural differences – like karaoke. Just don’t try to make sense of all the cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends.

This is a movie that has heart and comes by its emotional responses honestly. You don’t get a sense of being manipulated here; nonetheless this will resonate, particularly with those who have lost a beloved grandparent. I was very much reminded of the last time I saw my grandmother alive in Winnipeg. I did get a chance to say goodbye to her which was a very good thing even though she wasn’t in a terminal stage yet. I’ve never forgotten my Baba and how warm and loved she made me feel. Grandmothers are like that, you know.

This looks to become a major indie hit for A24 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a wider release than it is already enjoying. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the film got some recognition come Oscar nomination time, particularly for Awkwafina but maybe for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Zhou) and Best Picture. Cinephiles should make a beeline to the box office for this one as should anyone who has ever loved their grandmother, particularly if that grandmother is still alive. You definitely need to appreciate her while she’s still around.

REASONS TO SEE: The story struck a huge chord in me. Awkwafina is absolutely amazing here. This is not a tourist version of China but a peek into the everyday lives of Chinese people.
REASONS TO AVOID: Got a little bit hard to figure out who was who in terms of the relatives.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity as well as some serious adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film made its limited release debut on July 12, it beat out Avengers: Endgame for the largest per-screen average of the year to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Lamp Light

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The Little Death


Pillow talk.

Pillow talk.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Bojana Novakovic, Josh Lawson, Damon Herriman, Patrick Brammall, Ben Lawson, Tasmeen Roc, Erin James, Stephanie May, Lachy Hulme, T.J. Power, Lisa McCune, Kate Box, Kate Mulvany, Hiroshi Kasuga, Zoe Carides, Matt James, Darren Gallagher, Paul Gleeson, Kim Gyngell, Stephen James King, Alan Dukes, Genevieve Hegney. Directed by Josh Lawson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Romantic relationships are tricky, complicated things. There is so much going on, so many layers in play that it’s remarkable that any can survive. Intimacy is by nature an element of a romantic relationship, and there are so many different types of intimacy that mastering all of them is a feat that requires commitment and hard work.

This pleasant Aussie film features five couples in suburban Sydney dealing with a variety of relationship problems and sexual fetishes. Paul (J. Lawson) and Maeve (Novakovic) live together and seem happy enough, although there are those who frown in disapproval that the two seem to have no plans whatsoever to get married. One night, Maeve tells Paul that she would like him to rape her. Not as in, take her unwillingly but to make her think she’s getting raped – not tell her in advance when he was going to do it, wear a mask so that there could be some element of doubt .

Paul is somewhat taken aback but he truly loves Maeve and wants to make her happy. He makes a pretty decent attempt to rape her but she falls out of the mood when she smells his cologne. Eventually, he makes an elaborate attempt which goes quite wrong – although in the end she gets that he would do anything to make her happy, even that which goes outside his comfort zone. That one’s a keeper in case you were wondering, Maeve.

Dan (Herriman) and Evie (Mulvany) are having intimacy problems and are seeing a relationship counselor. He advises them to do a little role playing; get out of themselves and become other people. At first, it’s kind of a giggle but the two end up consummating and in a big way. Dan is inspired to do further role playing, even taking up acting classes. Soon, to Evie’s dismay, the role becomes more important to Dan than the play.

Rowena (Box) is trying to get pregnant and her husband Richard (Brammall) is giving it his all but after three years they’re still trying. The failure is beginning to get under Rowena’s skin and she sees a doctor about it, who advises her that orgasms can actually help with fertility. Shortly after that, Richard’s father has a heart attack and dies unexpectedly and her manly husband breaks down in tears for the first time in front of his wife. Rowena is quite moved by this – and quite aroused, to her surprise and delight. She finds that she can orgasm only with the use of tears but getting her husband to cry can be quite the challenge.

Phil (Dukes) is having problems sleeping. He wants some tenderness from his wife Maureen (McCune) but while she is a beautiful woman, she’s also a shrew and tends to belittle him every chance she gets. As for intimacy? Forget it! She’d rather get some sleep, so Phil doesn’t. He falls asleep at work and his boss (Hulme) warns him that if this continues, he will have no choice but to fire him. He gives his employee some not-strictly-legal sleeping aids. Phil often gets aroused at the sight of his sleeping wife; when she accidentally drinks a cup of tea in which he’d put the sleeping powder, he finds that he can make of her the perfect wife; cuddly, loving and affectionate. He is happy for the first time in a long time.

Finally, Monica (James) works as the interpreter at a video center which allows her to sign for deaf people who can’t hear the people on the other end of the phone. Ironically, she wears a hearing aid which has a nasty habit of going on the fritz at inopportune moments. In any case, one night she gets the assignment to translate a phone sex call for Sam (Power), a lonely insomniac graphic artist. Although Monica is uncomfortable with the graphic talk, she and Sam strike up a conversation afterwards and find that they have a good deal in common.

A thread running through the movie is Steve (Gyngell), a new neighbor in the same Sydney suburb who introduces himself with baked goods that are racially insensitive and are generally frowned upon in Australia these days although it does set off a sense of nostalgia in most of those who receive them. Steve then tells them that he is required by federal law to inform his neighbors that he is a convicted sex offender. The running joke is that nobody is paying attention to him when he says this, being either wrapped up in their own problems or in the hazy glow of nostalgia that comes from the golliwogs.

While sexual fetishism is used as kind of a linking device to each vignette, the truth is that this isn’t about sex so much as it is about relationships. Josh Lawson, a veteran Aussie actor, not only directed the movie – his first go-round in the director’s chair by the way – he also wrote it as well. One gets the sense that Lawson has a liking for irony because there’s a lot of it here; the couple that communicates the best is the deaf one, for example, while the most “normal” of the couples is the one trying to enact a rape role play.

Most of the couples have some sort of issue in their relationship, be it the aforementioned communication with each other (or lack thereof), or truthfulness within the relationship (or lack thereof). We watch at least one of the couples drift apart; we see another one, in which one member takes the other for granted, end up in a situation in which that won’t be an issue anymore.

The movie is funny in a breezy sort of way and while there is some uncomfortable sexuality, it isn’t necessarily raunchy in the way American sex comedies can be. Even though some might look upon this as a celebration of deviant behavior (and some critics have), what it really is at least to me is an expression of what it takes to make relationships work and how difficult that can be. The sex only appears to be the be-all and end-all to the movie; it is at the end of the day the relationship that is important, more so than the sex which is merely a component. Just as in life.

REASONS TO GO: Believable relationships. Some genuinely funny vignettes. Insightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Might make the prudish uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sexual content and graphic language, some partial nudity and a few disturbing scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title comes from a 19th century French euphemism for orgasm, le petite morte.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What to Expect When You’re Expecting
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pixels