There's a brief point early in Lulu Wang's The Farewell where it's easy to imagine an alternate universe mash-up of this movie and Ocean's 8. When Awkwafina, the dutiful granddaughter, assures her grandmother on the phone that she's wearing a hat to keep warm (she's not), she could easily be on the way to a park in Queens to work her next hustle. The illusion is dispelled early on though, and it's Awkwafina's posture that does it. In The Farewell, she moseys around with rounded shoulders and a permanent slump; this is not the swagger of a fingersmith who has the gall to lift Cate Blanchett's watch. Billi (Awkwafina) is always dressed in a sort of inchoate sweatshirt fabric ensemble. It immediately gives off the whiff of someone who both strives for comfort and who couldn't care less what impression she's giving because she has bigger worries on her mind.
And this is true -- Billi's grandmother, or Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), has just been diagnosed with cancer and she doesn't have long to live. What seems the wildest to Billi, however, is that Nai Nai is the only one who doesn't know. Her extended family gathers in China to say goodbye under the guise of a family wedding, all the while keeping the secret under wraps. In fact, they don't even want Billi to come, fearing that her lack of a poker face will give it all away. It's not an unreasonable worry: Billi's eyes brim over with mournfulness every time she looks at Nai Nai, as likely will the eyes of every audience member watching the movie.
It may sound like a crazy tradition to anyone unfamiliar with it, but it's apparently commonplace. Doctors speak to relatives about diagnoses and keep the secret safe from the one with the disease. The family comes from all over China, Japan, and the US to gather for the wedding/farewell, but Billi herself seems to have the most difficulty with the cover-up. She urges her family members to reveal the truth, until she's set straight. This is simply what is expected and it's not cruel or absurd: Nai Nai herself hid the fact that her husband had cancer from him until near the end. Chinese people have a saying: "it's not the cancer that kills them -- it's the fear." The family takes on the burden of grief to protect the afflicted person. In this, the group shares the pain of the knowledge for the individual.
The clash of cultural ideals is at the forefront of The Farewell, not just in its culture of grief but the overarching idea of the individual and its obligation to the group, or the reverse. Billi's family is proud to have moved to America, but Billi herself is at sea. Her wardrobe reflects her amorphous state -- she's too Chinese in America and not Chinese enough in China. She mourns being uprooted at such a young age from China, unable to understand or recognize her homeland anymore. Wang's handling of these emotional moments is patient and honest. Her camera prefers unbroken takes of Billi's emotional monologues, while maintaining a safe physical distance. The space in the frame allows us to constantly contextualize Billi, while emphasizing the actual distance she feels.
The Farewell careens between drama and the comedy of the lengths that the family goes to to keep the truth from Nai Nai, but Wang keeps it warm and genuine. It's an ambitious feature: the majority of the dialogue is in Mandarin, its hues are often pellucid blues, and most of it was shot in Wang's hometown. Wang's concern is with authenticity, not what's marketable. But even when the film reminds us that it is a film, like in a slo-mo scene near the end, it's more to signal the coming together, the sharing, of the family in that moment of what they have to do.
At one point in The Farewell, Billi remarks in disbelief that what they're doing is surely considered illegal in America. This statement could probably be repeated a few times over in Ari Aster's Midsommar, another summer flick this year that dealt with culture clash and grief.
Reeling from a recent tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) ends up tagging along on her boyfriend Christian's (Jack Reynor) Swedish bro-trip. The group visits and takes part in a famous mid-summer festival in a secluded, rural village that only happens every ninety years, which quickly takes horrific and bizarre turns.
Aster himself said that his follow-up to Hereditary was meant to be a break-up film, but it fails at making a compelling case as either that or a horror film. Dani and Christian's relationship is pretty flimsy and mostly broken up to begin with. Christian is an asshole from the start, and we're never certain what Dani's attraction to him is or was. There's a bare expository phone call to a friend sketching it out (apparently involving a friend of Dani's that we never see or hear from again. Does Dani even have any other friends? It's unclear), but that's the extent of it. Christian's behavior throughout borders on laughable, but the action that proves to be the final straw isn't completely in his hands. He ends up so drugged up, we're not even sure how much agency he ultimately has. It's clear that he wouldn't have needed much of a push, which makes this plot decision even more curious. And there are those who might feel that what he did deserves the outcome: being paralyzed, stuffed into an actual bear suit, and burned alive...but that seems a bit harsh to me.
Midsommar makes a far more fascinating watch as a study on grief and ritual. Almost all of the beats of the film are shown to us beforehand, either in mural or verbally. Even the horrific opening scene is precluded by a picture of what is about to happen. One member of Dani and Christian's group, Josh (William Jackson Harper), is actually studying the mid-summer festival as part of his thesis, and so remains the most unfazed at the first ritual that the group experiences. The reactions to this ceremony, involving the two eldest members of the village, are fairly indicative. Two British tourists are screaming at the sight, Josh's only admission the night before is something akin to "wait till you see it -- it'll ruin the experience if I tell you about it" as if he's talking about the ending of The Sixth Sense rather than a cult ceremony, Dani is shell-shocked, and Christian is doltishly aloof, assuring her later that he's certain that other cultures would consider American traditions with the elderly equally barbaric. His response isn't really inclusive as much as it is dismissive of Dani's own feelings and trauma.
It's difficult to say if any of these is the correct response to a culture or tradition we're unfamiliar with. Christian and Josh, after all, are only accepting as far as it benefits their own ends. Dani is easily, by the film's last smile, the one who most assimilates into the pagan cult. Appropriate because of the amount of grief she has already suffered by the time they arrive in the village.
But what does Midsommar say about grief or the tradition of the individual for the whole? Certainly the individual is subservient to the community, as shown in their sacrificial and mating rituals. And yet, the individual is not set apart from the community in their acts. What is the most appealing to Dani is the sharing of their grief and action. When Dani witnesses the betrayal of Christian, she breaks down and weeps, only to be joined by a group of women who weep and wail with her, sharing every bellow and sob. When Pelle (Villhelm Blomgren), tells Dani that he knows how she feels, it is to make her feel less alone, and to assure her that he has also witnessed the death of his family in a horrific fire (which begs the question, of course, on exactly how many once-every-ninety-years rituals they participate in). Not only that, he emphasizes how the community supported him and kept him from feeling lost. The only way this makes sense is to realize that the village completely assumes responsibility for the pain they caused by sharing in it. When the sacrifices burn at the end and cry out their pain, the whole village cries out in tandem with them, in a recognition and sharing of that grief.
Dani understands this. Already she has taken part in a dancing ceremony, where she became one with the dance, causing her to completely understand the Swedish words thrown her way. In her delirium, she finally understands what is being communicated because she becomes one with the people around her: a part of the group. It's not certain exactly how much her final decision is influenced by her feelings for Christian. But as she weeps and wails along with everyone else, she is taking part in their culture of grief. Her beatific smile at the end is the cherry on top. She is no longer a part of a toxic relationship where she has to feel shame in sharing her pain; she is now a part of a community that wants to feel what she does.