Review: The Farewell
A peek into a benevolent China
A few months ago I was at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris I saw Yan Pei-Ming's “A Burial in Shanghai” whose huge, stark canvases of black and white had an unconscious impact on me. I remember sitting before one of the canvases, exhausted from walking all over the museum and just trying to take in the scale and contents of the paintings. An old woman on a hospital bed, a burial against the Shanghainese skyline and a waterfall or something hazy to that effect. Little did I know that I would be witnessing a movie version of these paintings with the similar themes of death, development and a sense of loss towards ones own country in a kino in Berlin.
I was already 20 minutes behind the official showtime, and so I was running to the kino. The first twenty minutes are devoted to advertisements but that can wary on the popularity of the movie and in Berlin it is a hit or a miss. Movies one thinks can be empty are full and vice-versa and I didn't want to take a chance with this one. This season has been one with very dark movies and I needed something to break the monotony and The Farewell seemed to offer just that.
The woman behind the counter told me that the movie was already started two minutes ago and that the heater wasn't working. In moments of pressure my German becomes a leaky toilet and I was throwing my verbs all over when an older woman came from behind a curtain warning me that I had to understand two of the languages from English, Mandarin and German to understand the movie. I like these ushers who have this concern towards customers but it is a sad question really, it means that either the usher or the regular movie goers do not get the point of watching a movie – the images are right there in front of you and what is better than a foreign language to put things together and narrate your own story to it? Or that the ushers do not dream of watching movies all day – I would assume that it is a low pay job but why not? The woman also warned me that the heating was broken so the temperatures inside were less than 15 degrees. I didn't care, I was there for watching a movie and not being toasty like a biscuit. All that complaining perhaps had an effect on the crowd inside, there were hardly ten people in the cinema. I wonder how many more how walked in with intent and out without making a purchase.
The movie itself wasn't extraordinary. It gives a peek inside China and deals with the topic of immigration and the concept of home and family which can seem exotic to Western families that don't have the same experience of moving far away from their birth homes with no promise of coming back. The story seemed normal from my Indian lens: the growing change in the society from the within, the breaking of traditional familial bonds, the romance with all things American, the extreme rejection of the idea of death.. it shows that the countries are much alike than we believe to be. This can be a cause for concern as the authoritarian angle the Chinese pursue is the current Indian government's wet dream and throughout the movie it reminded me that the distance between these two cultures is smaller than I thought, no matter what the appearances might reflect.
Yan Pei-Ming's paintings left more for one to chew on and remember. I can still remember the feeling of sitting in the exhibit room and wondering at the pixels that shook before me like ambient white noise. The Farewell however is less personal because it tries to please itself a bit too much. Sitting between both these works, I wonder if my place in the world is the same as the two artists – far away from a place once I called home, with dead family members and a feeling of self one cannot really place anywhere.