Saturday, September 26, 2020

Straying from the Party Line: The “Passive” Protagonist of The Farewell

There were many Western ways for The Farewell to end: 
  • Billi can’t take it anymore and confronts her Nai Nai with the truth.
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but someone else unexpectedly snaps and confesses.
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception but the truth comes out accidentally.
  • Nai Nai figures out something’s going and gets the truth through interrogation.
In each case, this would happen around the ¾ point, and the fallout from the lie coming out would supply the drama for the final quarter of the film. I was fairly sure that one of these would happen. But I thought of one more possibility:
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but as they say good bye, Nai Nai slyly hints that she knew all along and appreciates that nobody told her.
As we moved along, I started to think that was the most likely.

But then we get to the actual ending: Billi agrees to go along with the deception, and leaves without the truth ever coming out, and Nai Nai never gives any real hint that she knows the truth. The ending card implies that Nai Nai never found out and survived because of that.

This totally breaks our western rules of “big lie” storytelling. Big lies must come out! Once the rock has been rolled uphill, it must be released, come barreling back down and knock everybody flat.

Wang is defiantly refusing to give us what we expect and demand. This is the same conflict Billi has with her family. Wang is saying to us, “That’s the confrontational American way of doing things and you’re sure that it’s the only way, but there’s a gentler Chinese way, and our way can work better than your way, if you just learn to go with the flow.” No confrontation, no narrative climax, no release.

But, crucially, Wang knows she is defying our expectations. She’s not just saying, “Oh, did I create a passive protagonist? Whoops, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that.” She is creating tension by pointedly defying our expectations in every scene and that tension is powering her movie.

And the scene at the climax where Billi must run across town to forge a new medical report before the end of the wedding is absolutely crucial. Suddenly, she must improvise and actively participate in the plan to do nothing. She must act to maintain her lack of action. The ending would feel like a much bigger fizzle if she had not been forced into action like that, showing that she’d switched sides definitively.

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