Why The Farewell Speaks So Clearly to Me

The 2019 Movie Club, entry 12.

Awkwafina, as Billi, rests her head on the shoulder of Zhao, as Billi's grandmother, as they sit at a table covered in plates of food, in a scene from The Farewell.
Zhao Shuzhen and Awkafina in The Farewell. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by A24.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.

Dear Uncut Gems haters,

How dare you. How dare you. Howard Ratner did not smuggle an Ethiopian black opal inside a fish and then make a six-way parlay bet on the Celtics to be shrugged off this way.

In terms of both nonfiction and titles I feel a moral obligation to champion, Brett Story’s incredible The Hottest August tops my list. I’ll confess to having always harbored a resistance to documentaries that treat form and aesthetics as incidental compared with subject matter, and that feel like they’re more journalism than filmmaking. It’s not that these movies can’t have value or appeal or that they aren’t often more widely watched by the public—they don’t give me much to work with as a critic. So when I say that The Hottest August is the best film I’ve ever seen about climate change, I should also point out that it offers nothing about the subject in terms of charts and figures or information about new factors we should be furious about or what we should be pushing to change. The closest it comes are readings from Annie Dillard, Karl Marx, and Zadie Smith (“ ‘It’s the new normal,’ I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over”) slipped in between interviews and observations made over a summer month in New York City in 2017.

Story traveled around the five boroughs talking to people about the future and about a lot of other topics as well. Among its other achievements, The Hottest August is a fabulously discursive depiction of New York that goes far beyond the parts of the city that tend to end up on screen. She pays a visit to the beach at Coney Island, to the cubicles of the 311 call center, to a neighborhood bar in Staten Island. Everywhere she goes she employs her marvelous eye for detail—I was especially enamored with the duck seen sitting on a bench next to a woman texting her way through a nighttime baseball game. The conversations Story has with her subjects sometimes wander to the past, not always in pretty ways, and touch on how not everyone has the luxury of being able to look up enough to speculate about the future. But underscoring everything, and occasionally rising to become text rather than subtext, is a deep unease about what’s coming, a suspicion that we might have crested a hill and that what’s next is only an acceleration downward. I wrote of the film that “it’s a little too easy to imagine it playing against the side of a ruined building in a city no longer inhabitable by humans,” and that’s part of its profoundly unsettled effect. It’s a preapocalyptic document of a time that we can feel slipping away even as we live in it.

Karen, I’m envious of your Alita: Battle Angel ebullience (even though merely expressing an opinion on that goddamn movie ended up being the thing that led me to change my Twitter filters forever). There were plenty of things I loved this year, but I didn’t feel a lot of blockbustery delight; none of 2019’s big entertainments succeeded in sweeping me off my feet, even the ones I liked. The movie I ended up going back to the most, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, was actually the one that caused me the most pain, with its unwinnable skirmishes over filial responsibility and its explorations of immigrant ambivalence. The Chinese side of my family is, like Wang’s, spread across continents. But unlike the one in the film, which fights to retain a sense of coherence across a dozen time zones, mine feels poised to permanently dissolve into the diaspora, a possibility I’ve felt more acutely since traveling back to see them this summer. I’ve never had the kind of relationship with my grandmother that Billi (Awkwafina) has with hers, but at this point dementia has made us into strangers. When I last went to see her, she could only repeatedly offer some of her food, like the baffled but polite host of unexpected and unfamiliar guests.

Wang’s movie has gotten a lot of praise, and I’m glad, but it still feels undervalued to me, and I still feel the need to fight for it. Maybe it’s that the skillfulness of the tragicomic tone makes it easier to overlook how much unresolved and unresolvable pain there is in this story—the pain of choosing not to be with people you love, no matter how compelling the reasons may be for the choice. Chinese American cinema has tended to return again and again to generational differences, to the gap in communication and in values between Chinese parents and American children. But The Farewell comes at this topic in a way that’s both more complex and more bluntly devastating. I’ve seen the film four times, and I flinch every time Billi’s uncle lectures her about how “in America, you think one’s life belongs to oneself,” but that “in the East, your life is part of a whole.” It’s a generalization about individualism versus collectivism, sure. But it’s also a simple statement of fact hiding behind a frustrated fight about doing right by a loved one: Someone leaves and changes, and can’t come back and expect to seamlessly fit back in or to understand. It is so much easier to suggest that there’s a resolution to these feelings than to accept that loss is a central and unavoidable part of this experience. That The Farewell opts for the latter is why I respect it so much, even if watching it has felt to me like picking at a scab.

And on that bruised and banged-up note, I’ll send us into the fourth and final round by bringing us back around to that most annoying discussion of the year, Marty versus Marvel. Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest we re-relitigate the nature of cinema. But I’d like to point out that one thing Avengers: Endgame and The Irishman definitely had in common was being able to break through the wall of noise. Both were effectively presented as events. And I’m curious, Dana, how you feel about this increasingly being the measure for a movie to gain any kind of audience, and how it might be affecting the kinds of movies that get made—and is the streaming long tail the thing that’s going to counterbalance this, or is that just something we like to tell ourselves?

Jelliclely yours,

Read the next dispatch here.