What I am about to say about The Farewell, which is currently enjoying an almost 100% positive showing on Rotten Tomatoes, is likely to make me sound callous, hard-hearted, and mysteriously immune to whatever has touched so many critics so deeply. It’s a “perfect movie,” they’ve said. It “delivers powerful emotional blows“; it’s “poignant and funny”; and is, for one Rolling Stone critic, “one of the most genuinely moving films I’ve ever seen at Sundance.”

It may also sound dismissive toward a film that carries particular significance for American immigrants, particularly Chinese-American immigrants who have family on the other side of the globe.

To moviegoers deeply moved by the film’s adoring portrait of a charismatic grandmother, and by how it reminds them of the grandparents they have loved and lost, my response might seem downright heartless.

My response may be most surprising and disappointing of all… to me. As a Chinese cinema enthusiast, and as a teacher who seeks every opportunity to introduce American students to movies depicting cultures beyond their borders, I was eager to see this film even before that Tomato-meter heated up.

In The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina, center) can’t understand why her parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) have decided to lie to her grandmother.

So, let me preface my comments by encouraging you to go see The Farewell for yourself. You’re unlikely to experience the movie the way I did. It’s inspiring a rare moment of near-unanimous praise. What’s more, it’s easy to feel, as the movie unfolds, just how personal the story is for director Lulu Wang. (You can read about that in David Fear’s Rolling Stone interview.) The cast is a gifted ensemble, all of whom show remarkable restraint where so many actors would have aimed for big Oscar moments. It illustrates a scenario that will inspire many to recall some of their family’s most poignant and painful experiences. If you see The Farewell, I think you’ll find your time at the movies well-spent. And if you go with friends or family you will have much to talk about afterward.

I recommend it.

My description of the film in the upcoming paragraphs describe only my experience of it, and my best assessment of why I found myself unmoved.

And, lest you you mistakenly assume from my experience of The Farewell that I must have never loved a grandmother, let me tell you: Elizabeth Rydman, “Mama,” my grandmother, was an American ideal in the role.


When I think of her, I breathe in aromatic memories. I remember Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter — all of the holidays that mattered — as waves of smells both savory and sweet, as she, in the house that her husband had built, hosted lavish multi-course meals. She’d scoff when we called for her to join us at the table; it was her choice to remain busy in the kitchen, setting an example that my mother would follow, so committed to serving, and so highly praised for doing so, that she could not rest even for a moment to join the conversation at the table. (I felt guilty for sitting and eating in her absence, and I absorbed at a very young age the idea that total self-denial was godliness. It troubled me. The fellowship at the table seemed important.)

As she always aimed to look her best, her bathroom’s Aquanet hairspray haze stung my eyes, overpowering the perfumes of decorative soaps. How I feared the chemical tang that meant Mama, my mother, and my aunt were “getting permanents” (they rarely said perms).

In which my grandmother presents me with two hand puppets for Christmas.

I loved her. She always greeted my brother Jason and me with hugs. Whenever my parents announced that Jason and I would be staying with Mama and Papa for a weekend, I received this as a gift; I never understood that this was a convenient excuse for my parents to break free from the burdens of parenthood. I took it as an opportunity to play in the wonderland of her backyard, with its berry vines, fruit trees (plum, pear, and apple), and surprisingly successful rows of Portland-grown corn.

My family was quiet about the details when she was dying. Even though I was in my late teens, I did not know what exactly was happening. But I did grieve. I still do, for I lost not only the grandmother I loved but the world that she made possible. Living at the intersection of strictly conservative Republican politics and legalistic evangelical Christianity, fully inhabiting the role prescribed for her there, Mama somehow moved with grace and generosity. In spite of the not-so-Christian values of that time and place, I still remember her as a saint.


And so, I am ready to be moved by great films about grandmothers.

Not just American grandmothers, mind you — there is something about the benevolent warmth of a grandmother that transcends culture, country, and era. In fact, when I think of movies that have gripped me with grief at the loss of a grandmother, the first that springs to mind is Yi-Yi, Edward Yang’s last and greatest film, which showed us a family taking turns at the bedside of their matriarch and speaking to her in hopes of awakening her from a coma. Yi-Yi is a rich, complex portrait of a Taiwanese family at a crossroads. And I thought about it a lot while watching The Farewell.

The PR synopsis describes a film in which Billi, a Chinese-American who has been striving in New York to win a Guggenheim fellowship, rushes back to Changchun to “fellowship” with her family as they assemble around Billi’s dying grandmother. There, the press release tells us, she has “a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child.”

Billi (Awkwafina) really, really loves her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), and can’t bear the thought of losing her.

I don’t see much about Billi’s cultural “rediscovery” here. Sure, she’s back in China. And she’s baffled by the Chinese inclination to conceal terminal diagnoses from dying patients. But she is focused almost entirely on that one thing in every scene: her family’s troubling determination to hide from Nai Nai (Mandarin for “grandmother”) the doctor’s belief that lung cancer will take her life in matter of days. This decision is common, we’re told, so that the family can “carry the emotional burden” and allow Nai Nai to enjoy her last days in blissful ignorance. Billi, influenced by her American upbringing, spends almost every scene emoting despondence and frustration, too busy sulking and angsting to concern herself much with a reawakening to the wonders of her country of origin.

The closest thing to suspense in this movie comes from what we’ve been conditioned to expect by more conventionally dramatic films: we’re constantly teased with the possibility that Billi might violate the charade and blurt out the truth. Most sequences attend to her struggle to hold back, or her family members’ crises of conscience under the burden of their decision.

While the family suffers from the doctor’s diagnosis, Nai Nai would rather play matchmaker between a handsome bachelor and her granddaughter. (Thank goodness that idea doesn’t become a major plot point.)

This simple but dominant narrative focus fails to engage me for the simple reason that this family is terrible at concealing their dread, and even worse at staging an extravagant event as a distraction.

In rushing Billi’s young cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) into a wedding that he and his fiancee Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) are clearly unprepared for, simply to have an excuse for assembling the scattered relatives and surrounding Nai Nai, they ask the audience to believe that such a ruse could work. I spent the movie feeling sorry for the anxious and unromantic couple whose tenuous connection is being exploited for the sake of protecting an old woman’s feelings. In a broad comedy — and, strangely, some of the reviews seem to think it is a broad comedy, when the film, for most of its running time plays somber and even sullen notes — we could have laughed the family’s strategy off as absurd. But that’s just the thing: The movie struck me as too serious to shrug off the scheming. It’s unbalanced, occasionally overplaying some of its one-note characters for laughs while also asking us to experience it as a somber meditation on cultural differences between East and West on the subject of death.

I laughed out loud only once. Mostly, I just sat quietly waiting for surprises or complexities that never came; the movie unfolded for me as a progression of obvious chords, played repetitively and softly. I’m grateful that for Wang’s inclinations toward quietness; I’d rather a movie like this whisper than shout. (I find many Korean melodramas difficult in their tendency toward emotional hysterics.) But there’s a difference between artful subtlety and dullness.

Nai Nai — isn’t she too bright to be fooled by her family’s conspiracy?

If I’m to consider whether The Farewell is an observant commentary on cultural differences, sure — Billi wrestles with how the West’s focus on individualism and independence clashes with China’s focus on the family. And that’s a subject well worth exploring. But I felt this film only scratched the surface, never offering more than its own trailer had offered on the subject, and allowing characters to point out the obvious at almost every turn. And I certainly didn’t learn anything about China.

Nor did I ever experience the admiration for Nai Nai herself that many critics are celebrating. Sure, as played by the spirited Shuzhen Zhou, this grandmother has some gumption. But she also seemed confoundingly oblivious in the midst of her family’s unpersuasive charade. The ad copy promises a film about how Billi realizes “her grandmother’s wondrous spirit.” Hmm. A scene in which this two of them move through some exercises, breathing and rejoicing, and asserting life, is not enough to earn that description. And Billi doesn’t seem surprised by how her grandmother is taking the family reunion.

At times, I began to think the movie could take an interesting turn if we began to believe that Nai Nai knew all along, and was choosing to feign ignorance for the sake of saving her family from the discomfort they would experience if they knew that she knew. Some may argue that the film is doing just that, but I never saw enough evidence. The film is too preoccupied with Billi, whose whole purpose in this film seems to be to worry about Nai Nai. As the protagonist, and one through whose eyes we are supposed to experience everything, Billi never becomes a three-dimensional character; her life outside of this crisis, outside of these feelings about her grandmother, don’t have enough presence for me to find her interesting.

In a rare moment, Billi shakes off her doldrums to join her grandmother’s workout.

And this brings me to Awkwafina’s celebrated performance. As a comic actress, Awkwafina nearly stole Crazy Rich Asians right out from under its own extravagance. On the way out of that movie, she was the one most moviegoers were talking about. Flamboyant, quick-witted, bouncing around the screen, she was hilarious. It made me resent Ocean’s Eight in retrospect for neglecting her. In The Farewell, she gives one of those performances that critics celebrate for how they prove an actor’s range. And yes, she proves here that she’s just fine in a dramatic role. But this performance didn’t strike me as particularly complicated or nuanced, probably because the screenplay ties her down; I think a lot of people are mistaking contrast (with her Crazy Rich Asians performance) for complexity.

I’m pleasantly surprised to find A.O. Scott (with whom I often disagree) voicing some of the same frustrations in his New York Times review:

… [T]here is also something hesitant about the way Wang turns this beguiling family story into a film, an unwillingness to push too hard into potentially painful emotional territory, which also keeps the comedy in check. … Aside from the irrepressible Nai Nai, who gets all of the good lines and most of the best camera angles, the other family members are thinly drawn.

That includes Billi herself, whose life outside the family is barely sketched in and whose inner life rarely emerges into view. Awkwafina … vanishes into Billi’s moods rather than illuminating them. Her performance seems cautious and defended in a way that characterizes “The Farewell” as a whole. Its affection for its characters feels protective; the film is reluctant to spill any secrets or cause any embarrassment.

But finally, it’s the film lack of complexity as a motion picture, above all, that leaves me unmoved. One of the measures of a great filmmaker is the extent to which they treat the screen as a canvas and tell a story with pictures, rather than merely filming people as they talk or emote. Imagery in The Farewell is almost entirely matter-of-fact, offering very few flourishes that I’d consider to be suggestive or poetic in any way. Its lack of close-ups is an effective method for underlining the story’s emphasis on community. But the only flourish of visual poetry that I noticed arrived abruptly at the end, which seemed strikingly out of step with the style established in the preceding — was it only 90 minutes? With its redundancy and lack of surprises, the movie felt so much longer than that.

I spent my time looking for nuances that would make me believe. But in the end, I didn’t believe in this family any more than I believed in Billi’s big moment, when she’s supposed to be channeling all of her frustration and passion into a spirited performance at the piano, and Wang blocks the image to conceal Awkwafina’s forearms and hands, utterly failing to hide the fact that she’s not actually playing at all.

As I departed the theater, feeling out of place in a crowd of sniffling and exuberant moviegoers, all I could think about was how eager I was to watch Yi Yi again.

Maybe this movie’s reception has more to do with the intensity of the memories it stirs up in its audience than it has to do with the quality of the movie itself.

Or maybe my soul is dead.

I don’t know. Go see it.

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