How Editing Mimics Memory in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”

The Farewell is absolutely one of my favourite films of the year, and one of the few which made me cry (twice, if we’re counting) yet want to rewatch immediately.

Awkwafina is a star. I look forward to her career of interesting choices and varied projects. I hope she ends up getting offered all the things, building a career of tentpole hits interspersed with meaty roles, bringing clout to projects she loves, producing more, being fantastic generally across genres while wearing outrageously stylish shit.

But this post is all about Lulu Wang’s technique.

There’s a sequence early on which for a moment I thought was a blocking misstep or odd editing choice:

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  1. Billi in her apartment
  2. Nai Nai at home. We see Suze doubled in the mirror’s reflection, the scene’s only reference to the mirror.
  3. Nai Nai’s companion Mr. Li has spilled water to her right, which she points out to him.
  4. Mr. Li crosses L-R to get a towel from the other room
  5. Billi is now in her kitchen.
  6. Back in Nai Nai’s apartment, we’re now offset instead of dead-on, we see Mr. Li behind Nai Nai to her right our left.
  7. Mr. Li cleans up the water to Nai Nai’s right, below the frame but clearly camera left.
  8. Billi is now back in the first room, but a different part of it, with different lamps in frame and an angle which means we can’t quite place where she’d be in relation to the first shot.

When we see the spill we’re in a wide, Nai Nai is centered, spill and doorway are Nai Nai’s right / frame right. We briefly cut away, then return to a medium shot on a 90 degree angle, the spill and doorway Nai Nai / frame left. The film never reminds us we left a mirror, and flipping things as well as changing the angle / size of the shot means it’s all familiar but feels ‘off.’

Between the mirror and cutting to Billi in a different location in between, there’s no technical issue or line cross. Of course Billi moving rooms during the conversation makes sense; I wasn’t confused when we followed her on the street earlier and cut to her in her home later. My hiccup wasn’t “that is wrong” but “that feels weird.”

The reversal is possibly more jarring because we cut to Billi for a short time between shots of Nai Nai, as opposed to cutting directly from the mirror to what it is reflecting. Still, it’s not a big wrench; it could probably pass unnoticed, or with the viewer feeling slightly disoriented without really noticing the feeling or the underlying reason, as is often the intent with something like a line cross or an unusual angle. A vague sense of “huh, that’s odd?” which doesn’t override the story or viewing experience is a delicate balance, and arguably harder to achieve than a “wtf moment” or pure smooth transition.

As the film goes on, similar editing and scene cuts continue to add to this feeling. My realisation was first practical, IE the mirror setup explicitly to use this shot would have been a lot of work, thus likely there would be a reason beyond mere aesthetics. Emotional realisation followed: this is the first of many shot/edit techniques which conveys how memory, repetition, familiarity, and time, play with our brains in real life.

Sometimes it’s accomplished with a jumpcut from mid-sentence in one scene to mid-conversation in another, sometimes by ending at a seemingly natural place but jumping into the next scenario in medias res. Multiple shots end juuuuust a few moments before we’d expect them to, particularly during the wedding – an event where chaos is the norm, time flies, and sensory overload means our memories of specific events all run together even before the night is over. The sense of oddness in rhythmic occurrences is also achieved using long unbroken shots, when a camera sits and watches repetitive motions of eating, greeting, or other everyday ‘mundane’ exchanges.

When the family visits Nai Nai’s husband’s grave, both techniques are used; the segment opens on funeral mourners for an unknown, wailing repeated with only pause for breath until we jump mid-wail to Billi and family laying out food and paper money. After an interlude scene we move to a long static shot of repetitive bowing and platitudes, eventually interrupted mid-sentence by a shot of the family filing out.

The camera is still oriented in a similar way to the gravestones as it was in the first shot, but the characters are now small in frame, walking the opposite direction to where they were bowing. They’ve been there before, they will be there again. It’s always different, always the same.

Perhaps my favourite sequence is Billi’s farewell to Nai Nai. It starts with a silent handclasp upstairs, jumps for a few seconds to the family bundling out the door talking over each other, then back to a silent embrace where the two are framed similarly to upstairs, but with a cityscape behind them. That the audio hard-cuts instead of crossfading to soften the transition is perfect: silence, to hubbub, to silence.

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The effect is not déjà vu, but something adjacent; what is happening feels not “exactly as something which has happened before,” but akin to it. We’re constantly immersed in patterns familiar but explicitly not quite the same, interim words and conversations and gestures getting clipped in our minds because we know how they will go. They’ve gone similarly the last 200 times, we want to hold onto some but the mind doesn’t work that way. The film masterfully uses these techniques to hit how we repeat cycles with those we know and are comfortable with.

We greet our partners with the same intonation when the phone rings, to the point when we don’t they know something is wrong.

We have the same conversation with our mother every few months. Yes we are eating our broccoli and being safe when we walk home late at night. Hang on a second, the dog is barking at something in the yard. No we don’t know what we’re doing for work next week, but we applied for 18 jobs and surely something will come through. No, we’re not changing careers. You know, reporting isn’t really a stable industry any more anyways. So it goes.

Last, take this moment.

The scene opens and stays on that first angle until the cut, so for a moment you think it may be a regular reverse in an unusual which is ornate all around, with strange lighting and an area for photos. The cutting and blocking is meant to give us this impression; the cut comes between words, indistinct background noise of photographers carries across, in both shots Billi is on the left, Nai Nai on the right, and Nai Nai’s right hand reaches to gently touch the face of a sad Billi.

But look closer. In the mirror the groom and bride are in a different position than in the first shot. There’s nobody else in frame, even though there were many milling around moments earlier. Billi and Nai Nai’s faces are so much lighter; they’re definitely in another place, but continuing their conversation.

We go through cycles with our loved ones until they run together and then end, our memory unable to distinguish with any certainty – or sometimes with certainty, but without accuracy – quite where one ends and the next began, which snippet belongs to which event, what order anything happened in. Sameness becomes routine, repetition makes memories hazy-edged but permanent, individual moments run into the wide river of our ever-expanding memory and meld with everything else. It’s wonderful and horrible, how everything mundane and repetitive is also different and precious. The film culminates in an ending series of shots I won’t spoil, which come as a surprise yet stay true to everything before.

To convey the complexities of memory in a ‘straightforward’ narrative using shot and edit technique is a gift, which of course like all filmmaking also involves smarts and study and hella hard work. At the core is a simple story, similar to ones we’ve seen and lived and will live again, but the execution makes it continually rewatchable.

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