The Farewell (2019) and Ash Is Purest White (2018)

Dir. Lulu Wang. Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma

Dir. Jia Zhangke. Starring Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Casper Liang

There are a bunch of scenes where people eat in The Farewell, which is lowkey one of the hungriest movies in recent memory, but the image that stands out from all this eating is the laziest Susan in the whole world. Each dish sits in its serving bowl and makes a slow, slow loop on a track. One has enough time to grab a portion, but also enough time to stare down the thing you really want coming from an entirely different hemisphere, or, alternately, to forget that something choice is even on the menu until it appears in front of you again. It’s what The Farewell reminds me of, a movie which is balanced so completely, and which does it by never overwhelming us with too full a plate. Read The Farewell as a family drama, or a circle of life archetype in which a wedding is fabricated to preempt a funeral, or as a story about immigration and globalization, or as a delightful comedy of manners, or about the thin, frightening line between doing what one believes is right and doing what might be best for everyone else. Replace the word “or” with “and” in that last sentence, and that’s what makes The Farewell a completely rewarding movie, a movie novelistic in its depth of sentences and story alike.

One of the best scenes in Ash Is Purest White is after its midpoint, when Qiao (Zhao Tao) makes land after a boat ride through the Three Gorges. While on the boat she made the mistake of leaving her bag in her cabin with a woman who crossed herself before eating; upon returning to it she finds that he ID and money are gone. She wanders through town. Someone is announcing a wedding banquet. Qiao is asked if she’s been invited, to which she replies she knew the bride from a while back. She’s guided to a table, where she immediately begins housing noodles. (Ash Is Purest White is significantly less hungry than The Farewell, for the record.) It is an exceptional scene because it is the first time Qiao makes a decision based entirely on self-interest and without respect to some outside propriety. There is no one she shows fidelity to here; nor is this a situation where she acts in her own self-interest upon running across the woman who stole her stuff, as there is no just reason why she should take someone else’s chair at the feast. She simply knows that this might be the only time in the near future where she can accept free food, and she eats ravenously, verily horking down the calories that she must know she’ll need if she can’t recover her belongings. Ash is much less concerned than The Farewell about its balance. Quite the opposite. Jia is most concerned with creating a picture with scenes which play very little to falling action. He shoots until we have what we need, and then cuts away from it. Another director would need that scene continued so she has to defend herself to another guest, or even show her eating something else. But Jia has made the point; she’s changed.

What the two movies have in common—and the connection is so obvious that I’m sort of ashamed to tag this under “Unlikely Movie Pairings,” because there is so much thematic similarity—is in this idea of sacrifice. The Farewell discusses sacrifice as a communal burden, or maybe it’s better said as a family burden, something that people do because it will better the others around them. Ash is a significantly more personal story than The Farewell, which calls upon many people to hide the secret from Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen); the sacrifice goes in a single direction in Ash, from Qiao to Bin (Liao), and that’s what makes Ash the dark side of The Farewell. In the hands of a family, even one that does not entirely agree among itself as to what kind of sacrifice is most appropriate, there is still nobility in the action. To do it alone, though, is to become deeply vulnerable, to be the lone musk ox protecting a calf rather than one among a great, grunting, and warm circle.

This is not to say that there aren’t costs to working in groups. Although Billi (Awkwafina) and her family are the ones who have to talk through their feelings about Nai Nai’s (Zhao Shuzhen) presumed death, given that Billi, who to her increasing chagrin is pretty Americanized, it’s her uncle’s family that bears the brunt of tears in front of others. Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) talks a very good game to Billi about how important it is for a family unit to prevent a family member’s pain. It is our responsibility, he tells Billi, to protect her. We will bear the emotional pain that, if she knew about her cancer, she would have to bear on top of the physical pain. Haiyin is, frankly, convincing, even if Billi continues to butt heads in private with immediate and distant family alike over this decision. But when he gives a speech at the wedding, he breaks down in tears when he begins speaking about what a wonderful mother he has. His son, Hao Hao (Chen Han), is the family’s prize ditz, and his marriage to a Japanese girl, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), is what brings everyone back to China. (Aiko speaks no Mandarin, which leads to a really outstanding complaint from Nai Nai about how she doesn’t understand anything. Billi speaks up for her: She doesn’t understand anything because she doesn’t know the language.) Just like his dad, who has been cool as a cucumber for days, Hao Hao also begins sniffling at the wedding. I suppose in America, Granny would know she had lung cancer and we’d all go to the wedding and maybe cry anyway because we knew this would be our last big event with her, but there’s something different here. Keeping a secret is another layer, no matter how filmy or slick it is, of emotional violence. It is a little funny to watch Hao Hao screw up his face, partly because he looks so very young, but it is also a tremendously sad thing to consider. It is his wedding day and his thoughts rest not on his own happiness or, better yet, on his wife, but on his dying grandmother. The secret floats to the top and squeezes itself out.

This must be even more difficult for Qiao, who is dropped into an initial responsibility and then finds herself chained to it. Jia is a great director of action, even though I don’t know that it’ll be the first line in his directorial obit—that first chapter of A Touch of Sin, for example, is just incendiary—and in the one serious scene of physical violence in this picture he finds the pace. Surrounded by a rival gang, Bin’s driver gets out of the car. He knocks down the first few men with style, but ultimately he is overwhelmed, fetal on the ground and kicked into submission. Bin wraps a towel around his hand, punches through the car window (it happens so fast!), and lays down the boom on more men. They overwhelm him too, using shovels and the hood of his car to give him a worse beating than the one his driver got. There is no one left now to defend her, or to defend the two men who have beaten to within an inch of their lives. The responsibility has fallen to Qiao. She takes a gun out of her purse, gets out of the car, and fires into the sky. The world becomes silent. The crowd that has gathered holds its breath. Her insistence that this is her gun gets her sent to prison for five years. The first two bullets she takes for Bin set the tone for the movie: she will continue to riddle herself for him. It can’t be love, precisely; there’s nothing so intense in this movie between them, no scene that shows that there should be a deep romantic attraction between the two of them. The only moment that would signify that there ought to be loyalty between them is a scene where a bunch of gangsters and Qiao drink a potent mix together, pledging their fidelity. It is a moment which has great ceremonial importance, but it’s also a moment that’s terribly flimsy for the rest of the gang. It does not stop them squabbling. It does not stop Bin from dropping Qiao while she’s gone to school for his freedom. In The Farewell, the system of self-sacrifice maintains because there are no weak links in its chain; in Ash Is Purest White, one link can be kicked along the side of the road ad infinitum. 

While Billi manages to keep a strong poker face in front of Nai Nai all the way to the end, even in some really gorgeous moments with her grandmother, it’s clear that just being back in China has stirred up memories and resentment. In both of these movies, the idea of what it means to come home is as essential as the concept of self-sacrifice. For me, the most meaningful moments of The Farewell are not primarily about the interaction between Billi and her grandmother, but the unseen interactions between her and her grandfather are much more stirring. We left, she says to her mom, and he died, and that was it. There was no chance to say goodbye, and worse than that a part of herself—the Chinese self that she only gets to wiggle her toes in while she’s with her family of fellow emigrants—was cut away before she could know how it would change her. There is a regret here that one usually finds in much older people. Billi is nostalgic not for a happier childhood (which would have been nice, certainly) but for a might-have-been, a possibility that she knows at thirty could have made her so different. Home is blurred in The Farewell, since Billi feels so much more at home with her grandmother than she does in her clammed up, dead-end New York life. Home is significantly less positive in Ash. Changchun has changed, as has Datong, but Changchun is merely different; Datong is falling. In the early 2000s, where the movie begins, Datong is a coal town that has seen better days. By the time the movie reaches contemporary times, Bin’s wheelchair is much in line with the town, by now on life support. To return to Datong in shame, as Bin does, in the care of an ex he tried to ditch in some far-off jail, is the greatest ignominy. Robert Frost tells us that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Jia Zhangke reminds us forcefully that you don’t have to like it.

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