Chronicle of a Death Foretold
One of the running themes hereabouts over the past eighteen years has been the way in which the cinematic landscape has been changing – not just with the Death of the Movie Star, or the fact that virtually every really big film these days is financed by Disney, but also in an odd form of cinematic climate change: you used to get certain kinds of films only at certain times of the year. Big genre movies started to show up around the beginning of May, had their moment in the sun, and were all finished by the end of August, to be replaced by early awards contenders. Nowadays, of course, you can potentially come across something hoping to be a blockbuster at any time of the year; no month is immune to the spread of big dumb genre movies.
It must make it trickier for anyone looking to release the less commercial kind of movie and make an impression – but still they soldier on. Good word-of-mouth and early buzz still counts, and on this score Lulu Wang's The Farewell has a good chance of doing okay for itself – good, but not great, for this is still a slightly oddball film with a couple of elements which can't help but impair its chances of connecting with the wider audience.
The film opens in New York with Billi (Awkwafina, which – should you be wondering – is the stage name of the performer Nora Lum), a young Chinese-American woman struggling to find her place in the world – she is far from financially secure and has a strained relationship with her parents. However, she is very close to her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who still lives in the old country. So when she learns that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Billi is deeply upset – although it's not entirely clear what's more distressing to her, Nai Nai's condition, the fact that her family have chosen to keep Nai Nai in the dark about this, or their decision to exclude her from the family get-together that has hastily been convened, on the ground that her American acculturation will make it impossible for her to maintain the pretence that her grandmother is really okay.
Apparently this is how things are routinely done in Chinese families: learning you are dying of cancer is considered to be upsetting and bad for your health, and so people are routinely lied to. In this case it extends to Billi's clan flying in from all over the world, for the (fake) wedding of her cousin to his understandably confused-looking girlfriend. Despite her parents' wishes, Billi ends up flying to China to say goodbye along with everyone else – but will she be able to keep herself from blurting out the truth? Should she even try?
The consensus review for The Farewell would probably consist something along the lines of 'One of the best/most moving films of the year', more likely than not accompanied by five stars. Well, it's certainly better than Angel Has Fallen or Fisherman's Friends, and this is certainly a film that's been made with a great deal of skill and intelligence, featuring the kind of performance from Awkwafina that launches careers. Based solely on the premise, you would expect this to be a film about grief, and loss, and quite possibly the differences between western and Asian cultures, and to some extent you would be right. However, it's the kind of movie which starts off looking like one thing but actually ends up being something quite different. There's actually relatively little in the film directly addressing issues of grief and bereavement, although much of the film's drama derives from the tension resulting from most of the characters being in the sway of strong emotions they are unable to express. (I suppose in itself this is possibly intended as a new way of exploring the stereotype of the supposedly inscrutable Asian.)
Instead, the film starts off with a nicely underplayed scene setting up the theme of the morality of deception, particularly when the person you're deceiving is a close relative: Billi and Nai Nai share a pleasant, loving long-distance phone call, in the course of which they repeatedly lie their heads off to each other. Neither is left any the worse for the experience, which of course makes Billi's upset when she learns of the greater lie perpetrated upon her grandmother a little hard to justify. There is a genuine attempt to explore the difference in attitudes, and the issue of who is really being kind to who in these situations. However, the film has other things to consider within a relatively brief running time: what it means to be a product of two cultures, for one thing; Chinese life in general, for another. The film may largely occur in subtitled Mandarin, but the family tensions and concerns it deals with are to some extent universal.
Prior to this film, I only really knew Awkwafina from Ocean's Eight, where I felt she turned in a fairly indifferent performance in an undistinguished movie – here, though, she is very good, authentic, believable, and often touching. This is particularly true of her scenes with Zhao Shuzhen, who delivers the kind of turn that people who vote for acting awards often really respond to – it might be worth a flutter on Shuzhen picking up a few Supporting Role gongs next awards season; this is the kind of film juries like to reward, but I'm not sure it's really going to be a contender for the big prizes.
Anyway, this is a thoughtful and well-played film, with an engagingly compassionate sensibility. It may just be that I am emotionally atrophied (too many Jason Statham and Gerard Butler movies, no doubt), but I didn't find it to be either as absolutely heart-warming or tear-jerking as some others seem to have done – there are certainly moments of piercingly acute pathos and emotion, but for the most part the film takes an oblique and underplayed approach, encouraging the audience to find their own meaning in events on screen rather than actively trying to manipulate their emotions. I suppose this is one of the things that make it a drama rather than a melodrama; regardless, it is an impressive movie which deserves its success.
Also This Week...
...the TV costume soap Downton Abbey reaches the big screen in the form of the movie Downton Abbey, which weirdly enough resembles a very long episode of a TV costume soap that's been shown in a cinema by mistake. (It's also the third release this year to feature the actress Tuppence Middleton, which Ye Post Editor refuses to believe is a real name. One can only assume time will eventually wear him down.) The King and Queen decide to stay at Downton Abbey during a tour of the country, putting everyone there into a right old tizzy. A bewildering array of plotlines are hung on this hook – will the silver all be polished in time? Who's going to fix the boiler? Will there be enough chairs? It's a sign of the essential oddness of the film that a subplot about someone attempting to assassinate the King is no more important than any of these other things and is resolved very early on.
I suppose this does the job if you like the TV show and are eager for more of exactly the same kind of thing; I could comment on the slightly depressing nature of the film's strident celebration of the British class system – the plot revolves around the outrage of the Downton domestic staff when they're told their opportunities to be grovellingly servile and deferent will be more limited than they would like – but I guess that's what Downton fans turn up for. Some fine actors appear and are underused, the film's picture-book image of the past of England is blandly pleasing; a sequel will no doubt materialise in due course. Grim monarchist piffle.