The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, is fast being slotted into one of film culture’s more interesting reductive categories: the heartfelt indie that makes everyone cry. The very premise primes you for this: based on Wang’s own experiences – “an actual lie”, in fact – it follows a Chinese-American woman whose grandmother is dying, and who must conspire with the rest of the family to conceal this fact from their beloved matriarch. (Let’s assume you don’t need any more details, because you’re reading an article about the film’s final 30 seconds.)
The film’s style also primes you for a good cry; it has a sparky and ironical humour, with a couple of great one-liners, all framed in an essentially rather quiet film. Wang directs her actors with an extraordinary precision, crafting a fully natural ensemble whose individual performers each get ample chance to construct their characters – even cousin Hao Hao and his somewhat unfortunate paramour Aiko (Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara) are able to convey their side of the story despite essentially silent, side-lined roles. The cast is led by Awkwafina, as the fully Americanised Billi, and she channels her natural energy into a downbeat rhythm that often recedes, yet shoulders most of the material.
The tension throughout is, as mother Jian (Diana Lin) spells out about halfway through, between an hysterical overspill of emotion (very American) and a poised restraint (very Chinese). We feel this through well-placed musical cues, which often pick up enough momentum to cause heightened emotion before swiftly quietening down. We feel it through stylised compositions, characters given varying relationships with the frame itself, in ways that want to draw attention to themselves but refuse to overstate. I’m talking about a sheer palpable force of melancholy, one that’s ultimately so tied to the characters’ subjectivities that it’s only afterwards you realise how brilliant Wang is, that she can swing not just between laughter and tears (I mean, how many directors can’t handle that these days?) but more specifically between the absolute dread enveloping most of her ensemble and the benevolent joy experienced by Billi’s Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) – as well as the many shades in between. The Farewell is a film with ample room for competing headspaces, and this is all absolutely crucial to the culture-clash concepts being handled.
The ending, of course, is where it all spills over: that devastating hug between Billi and Nai Nai, the weight of time handled brilliantly; the taxi ride away, heartbreaking from its rear-window vantage point; and finally Billi’s bird-fluttering grito across land and sea. We cut to black, the sound remaining, the various meanings settling sadly on our minds.
But then Wang gives us a quick coda, in digital video form, informing us that in real life, six years later, Nai Nai is still with us. That’s obviously well and good – she seems utterly delightful – but it does a number of things to the film that may or may not be fully successful. It’s unexpectedly similar to the coda that closes Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, and that must be one of the most controversial endings in arthouse history.
The essential problem here is that The Farewell seems to hinge on the inevitability of mortality – specifically that of our loved ones. The film gears us toward the death of Nai Nai, though not necessarily onscreen. Actually, it’s this very refusal to gather the family around for one last, touching Terms of Endearment exchange of affirmations that gives the denouement such earned power: as much as we’d like to Say Goodbye for the Last Time, mostly in life we’ll simply say goodbye, for the last time. And in many ways, the most nerve-shattering moment is that rear-window shot of Nai Nai waving goodbye, receding, and finally unable to not cry. A question I’d been pondering for much of the second half felt responded to: Nai Nai understands exactly what’s going on, has been playing the family’s game, and knows as well as they do that they have just Said Goodbye for the Last Time, pretending they’re just saying goodbye, for what will be the last time. The final shot, the birds escaping a tree back in Changchun, apparently implies Nai Nai’s passing, and suggests with a moving intangibility this event’s psychic link to Billi.
So back we are to Nai Nai’s having continued to live, a fact which continues to confound any description of the preceding sequence. Let’s go back a third time: the family say goodbye, and leave Nai Nai forever. Billi is anguished, and Nai Nai actually sobs. We conclude on a strange spiritual moment, and a kind of grieving silence. Seconds later, we are told Nai Nai is alive and well, and we see her dancing in her apartment. This is such a jarring snap from one emotional state – the seeming apex of the film’s journey – to another that it threatens to undo all the power. The stakes have, at the last possible nanosecond, been completely removed. We have spent an hour and a half coming to terms with an inevitable outcome. Why won’t you let us grieve, Lulu Wang?
And – oh, snap – there it is: the ownership of grief. If we assume you’ve been paying attention for this hour and a half, you’ll understand too well that the Chinese culture depicted in The Farewell takes a stance on grieving somewhat antithetical to even the most enlightened of family-based American independent dramas (I hardly need go into this, but remember most everything about Little Miss Sunshine?). The film itself, of course, works somewhere in between two essentialist extremes and is, as with most all of its externalisations of personal dysphoria, all the better for it. So we find ourselves with this endlessly complex final quarter-hour, edited so cleverly to bring in each character and refer to each idea. The coda, in that sense, is a knowing frustration to the big gushy tears we’re “supposed” to be carrying with us.
I would not presume to interpret a final “say” on what Wang is doing by bringing us to the edge of emotional catharsis before hitting the brakes – in fact I still suspect it’s part conceptual misstep rather than a full moment of arch genius – but the juddering “wait, what?” of her happy reveal certainly speaks to notions of closure and fictiveness in ways that are interesting enough to excuse the nagging sense that the choice is not quite satisfying. In a film based on a huge lie, this admission of the gap between the demands of thematic cohesion and the actual truth of the situation is honestly quite something.
Yet those demands of thematic cohesion are not insignificant. It’s clarified at the start of the film that this is a generally true story, “an actual lie” – this is crucial to our understanding of the central themes because without it The Farewell could register as mere farce, the cultural differences ringing falsely. But to lead us into a fictionalised story on the understanding that the underlying conversations are true is one thing; to lead us out with something akin to an emotional gotcha! is, in presenting the truth, paradoxically so honest as to feel disingenuous. The narrative artist takes us on a specific journey – I don’t think it’s cruel to suggest that the journey Wang sets out does not end with Nai Nai alive and well six years down the line. (And the questions this then opens up: Is she aware that her granddaughter has released an acclaimed radio show about all this? Is she aware that her granddaughter is now making a film, in China, in Chinese, about this? Does the lie still exist? Again, this coda throws up more fog in its seeming clarity – fog that Wang has cleared up, but this is of course separate to the question of what’s presented within her film.)
What it does manage, though, is to show us that the point of this film need not necessarily be the journey to the grave; after all, as with any good screenplay, the headline conceit is really little more than scaffolding for a range of wider concerns and studies. The Farewell‘s final moments, when we can assume not to interpret them as Nai Nai’s passing, become far sweeter, an affirmation of sheer connection. In that sense Wang’s coda takes charge and steams ahead of what we safely think our reaction to everything should be. Either way, the sheer fact of Wang’s conjuring such deep and varying feelings through this study in truth and family reflects the more obvious formal richness of her work.