And a Fond One at That
By Michael S. Goldberger
Every so often, some philosophically inclined sort seeks a window into your soul by asking, “If you could spend time with anyone now deceased, who would it be, pray tell?” Akin in hypocrisy to first wishing for world peace or a cure for cancer before asking for a Ferrari whence blowing out my birthday candles, I perfunctorily answer, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Ben Franklin. However, after seeing the delightfully heartwarming, bittersweet and often hilarious “The Farewell,” about a Chinese family who throws a wedding as pretense for gathering to say goodbye to their terminally ill matriarch, I thought of the grandmother I never knew.
Anna Goldberger (nee Scherzer), who ran a farm just outside of Krakow and had either 13 or 14 children (it’s a family mystery), half by Mr. Goldberger, and about another half by Mr. Lieberman, dissolved somewhere into the Holocaust. Legend has it she was quite something, a captain of agricultural industry whose financially astute DNA skipped right over me. But in my fantasy, I think she wouldn’t mind sharing some thoughts with her dreamer of a grandson.
You see, watching Awkwafina’s Billi, the Americanized granddaughter of the feting family in question, I couldn’t help be envious of that special love that exists between grandparent and grandchild. You ever see ‘em in McDonald’s? The kids are running wild, grandma and grandpa smiling non-judgmentally…the more they can spoil ‘em, the better. Maybe that’s why my parents spoiled me… a compensation for what the vagaries and wiles of history denied. I ever tell you about the time I wanted a hot dog at 5:30 a.m. on the drive from Newark to Montreal?
In any case, it’s the universality of director-writer Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” that gives us gleeful pause…the humanity of it all. They keep the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai, the granny superbly etched by Shuzen Zhau, a ploy that unearths a bevy of subterfuges and truths that live in the embroidery of every family. We see striking similarities, recognize quirks, have the cockles of our hearts warmed and, especially important considering the all but official policy of racism being perpetuated in America today, are reminded that we are all brothers under the skin.
Especially memorable and not without its compassionate humor is the depiction of the customs scrupulously observed when the international assemblage of family accompanies Nai Nai in her pilgrimage to the cemetery. But it’s in the conversations leading up to, during and after the wedding where we are most charmed and illuminated. While we know intellectually that different cultures deal with the very same problems in a diversity of ways, seeing that dynamic wrung out reaffirms the common thread that bonds us.
I think the mistake that the haters make is in fearing that the comradeship of humankind precludes any specialness that being so-called “pure of race” might contend. It’s also pretty lazy to assume that belonging to one particular group is status, when the good folks of every shade and stripe know full well that self-worth, validity and ultimately even the pursuit of happiness must emanate from within…from the worthy character we seek to build.
As part of the Chinese diaspora, Billi finds herself straddling two civilizations. And while around the dinner table at Nai Nai’s in China, her dad, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), asserts that he is an American, his older brother, an artist who had emigrated to Japan, identifies as Chinese. But these minor controversies merely underline the true fealty that’s at play here. It’s family, the concept ringing throughout the proceedings in a subtle variation of the same proud and dutiful passion Tevye flourishes when he hollers out “Tradition!” in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Whether or not you were/are lucky enough to have a granny shower you with gifts, wisdom and whatever equivalent of a Happy Meal might have tastily ruined your generation’s appetite, you’ll find the most touching scenes are between Billi and Nai Nai. While psychologists have written erudite monographs on why a special endearment exists between grandparent and grandchild, here the two main protagonists comprise the beautiful picture that says a thousand words.
I bet my grandmother Anna made great potato latkes when she wasn’t busy deciding how much kasha to grow next year and how many pigs she ought to send to market. And if she wanted to slip me a few zlotys after each one of my visits, who am I to upset her? Personally affecting, “The Farewell” is a little movie with a big heart. And, because it’s PG and suggested for the whole family, this is a perfect opportunity to make sure that spoiled little grandchild in your clan doesn’t become the only freshman at Princeton who hasn’t seen a subtitled movie.
“The Farewell,” rated PG, is an A24 release directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina, Shuzen Zhau and Tzi Ma. Running time: 100 minutes