I have a bit of a pondering question to ask. I don’t want to get too deep because God knows I have the emotional depth of a dried-out puddle, but I think it’s worth thinking about.
At what point do we stop living?
Is it when we die, or is it when we are told we are dying?
This is a question asked by Lulu Wang’s 2019 film, The Farewell, a genuine, somber, sometimes hilarious film that follows a Chinese-American family returning to their home country to visit the matriarch of the family. She has been diagnosed with little time left to live, but the family refuses to tell her. Instead, the family goes to great lengths to plan a fake wedding as an excuse to see her one last time.
Sometimes life seems like a movie, and for Lulu Wang, she has experience dealing with this very real practice. The script is based off of her own experience with the practice in her family, and it’s easy to tell after watching the film just how personal it was for her.
Helming the lead is actor/rapper Akwafina. She portrays Billi, the grandchild of the dying grandmother who lives with her immigrant parents in New York. Billi finds herself stuck between two worlds: her heritage and her accustomed life in America. When she learns of the family’s intentions, she’s flabbergasted by the mere notion that the family wouldn’t inform the grandmother of her impending demise. She represents how most of us would most likely feel in a situation like this. Because she is the most “Americanized” member of the family, her parents are hesitant to even have her be present at the fake wedding because they believe she won’t be able to keep the secret.
This push and pull between cultures is one of the most prominent pieces of the film. It’s something that most of us, including myself, won’t be able to fully comprehend. A feeling of being a stranger amongst your own family. It’s something that happens in immigrant families all the time, and Akwafina does a tremendous job at representing someone of that specific populace. She has to decide if she’s willing to play along for the sake of her family’s traditions or what she now deems as “right” because of her more Americanized beliefs. It’s a heavy role that she owns with such genuine emotion that I was pleasantly surprised to see her rightfully claim a Golden Globe for her role.
The rest of the family, save for the father and the grandmother, are portrayed by relative unknowns with little experience under their belt. Despite this, there’s an undeniably authentic feel to the family in their interactions and conversations. This, coupled with Lulu Wang’s dialogue, creates such a warm feeling of togetherness that can be hard to replicate. The family feels fully realized as they all deal with the matter unfolding. There’s grief, anger, and moments of humor in their interactions. It’s not all laid out in spoken word either. There’s so much subtext in the movements and the facial expressions of the family that words aren’t always needed to convey what they are thinking.
How the film portrays culture clash within the same bloodline is done in a way that doesn’t pick a side or ridicule one decision of another. It simply throws you in the center of this idea and allows you to come to your own decisions, throwing all the emotions that come with it right in your face. For a film about death at it’s core, there’s almost a whimsical happiness that comes with the family coping through this rough patch together. Whether it be an humorous picnic in a cemetery or a slew of drunken toasts at the fake wedding, the film never dwells on the crushing weight of death for too long. The implication is always there, but Lulu Wang’s expertly crafted narrative uses death in a way that heightens the desire to celebrate life amid impending doom.
The Farewell is a fantastic piece of film that succeeds in juggling tonal shifts in such a natural way. There’s laughter in sadness and sorrow in happiness. There’s such a familiarity to it, yet what family means to you or me might not be the same for someone else. It’s equal parts universal and pinpoint specific, something that can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Finally, it’s last shot will leave you with such a joyous sigh that could very easily bring on the waterworks.
Now let me clean these mysterious tears from my keyboard so I can post this.
For The Farewell, I wanted to find a cocktail that utilizes Chinese ingredients in an American style to bring together the differing cultural ideas like in the film. It’s very simple to make and utilizes the lychee fruit from southeastern China in the form of a unique liqueur that gives the drink a unique berry taste. A variation of the commonplace vodka cranberry, this is an excellent way to change up the formula and try something new while still sticking close to what you know.
- 1.5oz lychee liqueur
- 1.5oz vodka
- 1oz cranberry juice
- Lychee berries
- Add ingredients to shaker with ice and shake vigorously.
- Strain over ice in rocks glass.
- Garnish with lychee.