‘The Farewell’ — cultures clash in this low-key film with a big heart

“The Farewell” is a film by writer/director Lulu Wang. (AFP)
Updated 08 November 2019

‘The Farewell’ — cultures clash in this low-key film with a big heart

DUBAI: The Chinese have a saying: it’s not the disease that kills you, it’s the fear. “The Farewell,” a film by writer/director Lulu Wang, is about what happens when a family heeds that wisdom, even when lying is more painful than telling the truth.

It’s based on a true story: Six years ago, Wang found out that her beloved grandmother living in China, whom she calls Nai Nai, had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, and given mere months to live. Six years later, she’s still alive. And she still doesn’t know she has cancer.

Six years ago, Wang found out that her beloved grandmother living in China, had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. (AFP)

The film follows Wang’s fictional counterpart Billi (Awkwafina), who journeys with her parents back to China from the US to see Nai Nai before it’s too late, using the excuse of a hastily arranged family wedding. The family has decided that no one will tell the grandmother that she is sick. Billi disagrees with this deception — but goes along with her family’s wishes.

What makes “The Farewell” work is its enormous heart. Every character is full of love for this ebullient and charming grandmother, and while they disagree, they are all doing what they think is right for her, not for themselves. It captures the joy and the sadness that comes from spending time with someone you know won’t be with you forever. At times you’ll laugh while characters are crying, other times you’ll cry while they laugh. The film will make you love Nai Nai too, and you’ll feel her light, and that impending loss, just as strongly as they do.

The film follows Wang’s fictional counterpart Billi (Awkwafina). (Supplied)

We understand why Billi wants to tell her grandmother the truth, clinging to the American ideal of individual freedom, but the film never looks down on either Billi or her family, never belittles the family’s traditions as close-minded. No one is clearly right, even when one side wins out. The film’s truth is not in one culture or the other, but in finding a way for love and respect to end conflict.

“The Farewell” may be too low-key a film to turn many heads before it starts picking up awards, but for those that have ever felt stuck between two worlds, and for those who have ever lost someone special to them, there will be pangs of recognition that hit harder than any other film this year. See it. It stirs the soul.

‘Hamilton’ makes a successful transition to the big screen

Updated 04 July 2020

‘Hamilton’ makes a successful transition to the big screen

CHENNAI: Cinema sometimes looks to go back to its roots. Some years ago, European auteurs like Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and others introduced “Dogme 95” as a new form of moviemaking, which meant using no props, no artificial lighting and no makeup. It did not last long. However, Thomas Kail’s “Hamilton” — released to coincide with the Fourth of July and streaming on Disney Plus — is another experiment that reminded me of the very early days of motion pictures when some directors in India captured a stage play with a static camera and then screened it in remote regions, where it was not feasible to cart the entire cast.

Kail used six cameras to shoot what was originally a theatrical production. Over two nights in 2016, he filmed the play with most of the actors, including Tony Award winners, who were in the stage version. Every attempt has been made to make it look cinematic, with impeccable camerawork and editing. There is a bonus here. The movie enables you to be a front-bencher at Richard Rogers’ stage production. This closeness that allows you to see clearly the expressions of the actors establishes an intimacy between the audience and the cast.

Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, the 160-minute show makes a fabulous musical. The release of the film with its intentionally diverse cast comes at a critical time when race relations in the USA have hit the rock bottom. When Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr) sings that he wants to be in “the room where it happens”, the lyrics are sung by a black man.

Alexander Hamilton (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, also the creator of the piece) is the least well known of the American founding fathers. An immigrant and orphan, he was George Washington’s right-hand man. Credited as being responsible for setting up the country’s banking system, Hamilton was killed in a duel by Burr.

The musical is inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Courtesy of Disney

The story is narrated through hip-hop beats. Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) sings his speech to Congression, and the debates he has with Alexander Hamilton are verbalized through lyrics. Hamilton also has a lot to say about America’s immigrant past. In one scene French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette tells Alexander, “Immigrants, we get the job done!”

Performances are top notch. Miranda is superb, and evokes an immediate connection between the film and the viewer. King George III is brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Groff, and Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (Philippa Soo), is an endearing presence who has a calming effect on her often ruffled and troubled husband.

“Hamilton” is a great, if subjective, account of early American political history for those not familiar with that period. It must be said, however, the musical makes a long movie, which might be a trifle tiring for those not used to this format.