Tuesday, July 09, 2019

IFFBoston 2019.08: The Farewell

This movie opens Friday, I travel Thursday, and writing up everything else has me three months behind on this festival, so I'm starting at the end.

The festival ended, as has become traditional, at Coolidge Corner with Amiko Tamagawa (left) taking over for the folks who had been leading Q&As all week. It was a fun audience Q&A. in part because Wang based the movie on her own life, which means it was kind of strange for her to cast Billi, and wasn't sure what to think when someone suggested Awkwafina ("you think I should be played by the woman who did 'My Vag'?"). On the other side, she cast her actual great-aunt as Billi's great-aunt, and at times it sounded like it was a bit trickier than it sounds, because non-actors don't necessarily find it so easy to just be themselves on cue with a camera rolling. She was pretty good, anyway.

Anyway, a genuinely fun way to finish the festival, and I'm hoping that this sort of upbeat finale becomes a thing for the fest after Won't You Be My Neighbor? last year. After a week of often watching urgent documentaries and often-dark films, it's not a bad idea to finish up by reminding attendees how movies can make you feel good.

In that vein, here's a picture of 2019 mascot, Cameo the robot, holding court before the film began:

The Farewell

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2019 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (IFFBoston 2019 Closing Night, DCP)

Lulu Wang's The Farewell cheekily announces that it is "based on an actual lie", but that's about as far as the filmmakers ever seem to go in terms of treating their story as screwy and outrageous. That's mostly for the best; the film works because everybody's good intentions are not actually misplaced, even if they are counter-intuitive enough for the whole thing to be very funny. It's the sort of film that could have wound up nothing in trying to find a space between being somber and farce, but instead shows how the two in the right balance can feel authentic.

In China, an old lady visits the doctor with her sister, and the news is not good: She's got stage IV lung cancer, probably leaving her just months to live. Her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), whose parents emigrated to New York City when she was a small child, takes it like a blow, but is even more shocked when father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin) tell her that Nai Nai (Zhou Shuzhen) hasn't been told - the feeling is that people who know they are dying stop living their lives - and the family is staging a fake wedding between her cousin Haohao (Han Chen) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) as an excuse for the whole family to gather with her one last time. Except Billi - they're concerned that she won't be able to keep up the charade. She says nuts to that and goes anyway.

By its very nature, this movie is going to rest on the connection audience make with Billi, and probably would have even if Wang hadn't made her wearing her heart on her sleeve part of the story. Happily Awkwafina has a really delightfully expressive face, and that carries The Farewell more than just about anything else. Because the audience is told at the beginning that she's supposed to be an open book, they're inclined to focus on her and she never disappoints, funny and warm and very confused about how the values of her American and Chinese backgrounds intersect. It's not just that she's well-able to show the overpowering delight and sadness that the story calls for, but she ponders things well, and handles the holding-back nicely, sometimes obviously choking back tears but just as often having Billi seemingly not certain about just what her expression should be.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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