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Overstreet

The Farewell (2019)

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This is one of the most highly praised films of the year. SDG gave it an 'A' in his video review. Evan has shared his great admiration for it in a chat with me on Facebook.

I'm curious: Was anyone else underwhelmed?

It's hard not to feel hard-hearted for being unmoved by this movie. It's so well-intentioned, so respectful, so gracious. If I rated movies for their good-heartedness, this would certainly earn an 'A.' 

"Understated" is a word likely to come up in many reviews. It's appropriate. But understatement is not necessarily a virtue. I'll be frank: I was bored. I feel like the film gave me very little that wasn't in the trailer. I can't think of a single image that is likely to stick with me. I can't think of a single scene in which I was surprised.

I'm assuming you know the premise: A family determines to hide the truth of an elder's illness from her, acting to shoulder the burden of her decline and allow her to live in blissful ignorance.

But the primary problem, for me, is this: The family is so obviously hiding the truth from her that she must certainly guess what's up right away. I could never figure out if the movie wanted us to understand that the grandmother — Nai Nai, as they call her — is in on the charade from the beginning, and accepts their fakery as a gesture of love, or not. 

Okay, Awkwafina is fine in a dramatic role. The family dilemma is portrayed with some nuance, and there's some interesting (if slight) attention to differences between the East and the West. 

But I just kept waiting for things to get interesting. After the introduction of the family's decision to hide the severity of Nai Nai's illness from her, the film is just, well, a bunch of scenes in which they decide to go on hiding the illness from her. The cast is fine. The adherence to the reality of ordinary Chinese family life is fine. The prominence of a Leonard Cohen song is surprising, generally applicable, but really just... fine. The surprising lunge for a poetic final moment is... fine, but out of character with the rest of the film that offered very little visual poetry. This is one of those films in which I'm just watching one thing happen after another, and those happenings aren't particularly compelling.

Billie, the main character, isn't very interesting because almost everything we get to know about her is her emotional distress over the news about her grandmother. She never really came to life for me as a character with a life of her own. (One of the scenes meant to bring dimension to her character — her emotional release while playing the piano — was one of the most unconvincing piano-playing pantomime bits I've ever seen. Try harder, filmmakers.) 

When it comes to contemplations of Chinese culture, the pending passing of a matriarch, and the complexities of family dynamics in that context, I give Edward Yang's Yi-Yi an A+ and The Farewell a 'B' at best... probably a B-. 

Change my mind. Help me see what I was missing.

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I won't be the mind-changer.  I was underwhelmed and disappointed, too, giving the film 3 out of 5 stars.  Awkwafina, at least in this role, seems to lack the subtlety needed to convincingly carry a dramatic film.  And stylistically, some of Wang's choices were puzzlers to me.  

My full review: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/2019/08/a-passable-farewell/

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Overstreet wrote:
: But the primary problem, for me, is this: The family is so obviously hiding the truth from her that she must certainly guess what's up right away. I could never figure out if the movie wanted us to understand that the grandmother — Nai Nai, as they call her — is in on the charade from the beginning, and accepts their fakery as a gesture of love, or not. 

I kept wondering if there would be a typical Hollywood scene in which we learn that Nai Nai has been aware of the charade all along, and I was grateful that the film never played that card. Then again, when we are told that Nai Nai *herself* kept her husband's illness a secret from him -- because that's just the way things are done in that culture -- I began wondering how she could *not* suspect what her family was up to. A culture that plays those kinds of games is a culture that would encourage a huge degree of paranoia and/or mutual suspicion, I would think.

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