The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers: sugar and spice that are not too nice in a rich and lavish film

Bill Tytla, “Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers” (1950)

Part of a series of cartoons about a cute kindergarten-aged girl called … well, what else? … Little Audrey, this little short film packs in puns and jokes a-plenty amid some sumptuous artwork and (of course) visual gags. Our heroine takes instructions on baking gingerbread cookies from a radio cooking program: the interplay between the instructor (who can’t possibly see what the child is doing) and Little Audrey as she throws a hundred million ingredients into a mixing bowl and beats the mixture faster than Superman can punch up Darkseid with Krypton speed has its amusing moments. Once Little Audrey has her dough sitting in the oven, the cooking program ends and she drifts off to sleep with the timer set to go off in half an hour …

… and when it does, Little Audrey is astonished to see a live gingerbread man jump out and announce he’s off to a place called Cakeland to see his date. Little Audrey follows him all the way where he introduces her to his fiancee Miss Angel Cake and announces their marriage. Little Audrey assists Miss Angel Cake with her wedding preparations and follows the two into the chapel where the priest will marry Gingerbread Man and Miss Angel Cake. Next thing you know, the villainous Devil’s Food Cake fellow, complete with forehead horns, twirly moustache and goatee beard, turns up and kidnaps Miss Angel Cake. Gingerbread Man and Little Audrey (the latter calling on the cop cakes) must try to rescue Miss Angel Cake before she is whisked off to Devil’s Food Cake Island through Strawberry Short Cut. Well, that’s the kind of cheesecake punning we must put up with in this cartoon.

The short treads a good balance between an excess of cream and cake on the screen and actual saccharine sweetness: there’s very little on the screen that makes viewers feel nauseous, the jokes can be clever and the film rockets along at a cracking pace so there’s no time to linger on anything. Cakeland and its dancing citizens, along with the fantastic cake, cream and pastry architecture, have a dream-like quality and the colours used in the film are lush and vibrant. An interesting twist comes at the end of the cartoon when Little Audrey realises she has been dreaming and takes the dough mixture out of the oven; the reaction she has when she sees what’s in the pan is priceless. Did she really dream or was her little adventure for real?

While the animation of the characters isn’t very good and the plot is basic (the cartoon is aimed at a very young audience), the overall look of the cartoon is rich, even lavish. Pastries dance the can-can and perform Hollywood-style musical numbers to celebrate the wedding. Young viewers will learn something about being helpful to others without expecting any rewards, and being grateful for help offered selflessly.

The Mad Hatter: an insubstantial story in a detailed cartoon universe

Sid Marcus, “The Mad Hatter” (1940)

Mocking the faddish nature of women’s fashions, this animated short can be surprisingly critical of the nature of everyday work in capitalist society, the slave routine it forces on people, and how some people can end up quite deranged as a result. A secretary called Maisie jumps out of bed when her alarm clock rings and races through her morning routine of shower, brushing her teeth, getting dressed and made-up for work, and gobbling her breakfast literally on the fly. She runs after the bus so hard, she actually manages to catch up with it; the catch though is that as soon as she reaches it, she and the bus have both arrived at the bus stop where she would normally get off! Hitting her desk in reception at the precise time of 8:30 am when work starts, she immediately does start to work: she hauls out a box of candy to chomp on and a soapy novel to read while waiting for customers!

Nine hours later, having been finally released from work, Maisie goes to a hat shop to try on various hats: she likes one particular piece and the shop assistant places an order for it. The order goes to the hat factory where various milliner employees, straitjacketed and caged, loll about waiting for their orders! One fellow, eyes rolling about and tongue drooling, is given Maisie’s order and he turns out a veritable mountain of fruit that would have done the then popular Brazilian singer-actress Carmen Miranda proud. The order is delivered to the shop and Maisie promptly buys the hat.

There are many gags poking fun at Maisie and women’s fashion choices generally, and at a particular fashion-related industry that exploits human whim by hiring mentally deranged people to come up with original ideas for making hats. Such gags hark back to times when milliners and their employees really did suffer mental derangement from having to breathe mercury fumes from the solution used to turn animal fur into felt, used as the raw material for hats.

The plot is otherwise insubstantial and the main value of this short is to demonstrate the astonishing details in the animated backgrounds and the gags packed into seven minutes. While characters themselves are not drawn very well, the objects and furnishings in Maisie’s house look surprisingly three-dimensional and accurate. Joke after joke rolls out continuously; even the neighbour’s cat is drawn into a joke that sends up human vanity and intelligence. Animators who only know how to use digital animation databases in creating characters and backgrounds should watch short animated films like “The Mad Hatter” to see how a cartoon can compensate for shallow characters and an equally shallow story by creating a detailed and layered world where the action takes place.

All’s Fair at the Fair: a utopian view of materialism, seductive advertising, over-consumption and futuristic trends

Dave Fleischer, “All’s Fair at the Fair” (1938)

Best known for their Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, US animators Max and Dave Fleischer occasionally made animated shorts with biting wit and satire. “All’s Fair at the Fair” is a rare piece made in colour (and fairly soft colours at that) about an elderly couple, Elmer and Mirandy, from the sticks who drive into the city in their horse-drawn cart to visit a “World Fair”. Regular city folks either whiz past Elmer and Mirandy in their souped-up cars or arrive by train at the fair packed in sardine-tin carriages. Elmer and Mirandy leave their horse and carriage to the tender mercies of a car-parking valet (who uses a crane with a giant magnet to dump the horse and carriage into a junkyard) and explore the various beguiling offerings. They watch a machine pump out houses almost in the manner of a 3D-printing machine. They drink orange juice made from an orange grown in double-quick time by another machine, prefiguring GM food and food production. The couple are attended and groomed by various robots on separate assembly lines for men and women: they are groomed, shaven, powdered and literally reshaped (in Mirandy’s case, in a suspicious-looking Iron Maiden contraption) so that when they meet again, looking half their ages, they barely recognise each other. (I must have missed some tiny part of the cartoon where robots injected the couple with blood and plasma drawn from babies and young children, and used liposuction to suck out the fat and flab from the couple’s bodies.) They are taught the latest dances by robot dancing-teacher guides. At every step of the way, the couple pay a dime to use the services offered. Cars come out of vending machines and woollen clothes straight from the sheep can be made up faster than the incredulous couple can sneeze.

The look of the film is soft with pastel colours and buildings in curvy Metropolis-inspired Art Deco style. Details are emphasised as well as the general appearance, as you’d expect in a simple and uncomplicated plot where the main characters are physically transformed and rejuvenated. The futuristic contraptions and their products and services turn out to be surprisingly prescient. Capitalism reigns throughout the film in the form of mechanical hands begging for money and in vending machines that can spew out the most impossible goodies. Fortunately Elmer and Mirandy seem to have brought plenty of cash to splurge on being pampered and buying things they don’t really need.

I’m sure in a period in which the world was just coming out of a global depression, and farmers were still very poor, this cartoon about the seductive blandishments of materialism aimed at goggle-eyed innocents, unaware that they are being exploited, and the over-consumption that results, must have left quite a few 1930s audiences red-faced in recognition that they also fell for similar brainwashing from mass advertising.

Feline Follies: the folly of falling hard in love with no regard for consequences in a dark suicidal cartoon

Otto Messmer, “Feline Follies” (1919)

By no means a great cartoon or even a mildly interesting one, this animated short is notable mainly for the first appearance of the cat character later to be known as Felix the Cat. The plot is very sketchy and its message basically warns viewers of the consequences of being swept away by romantic love. An ordinary looking black cat, Tom (the prototype of Felix) falls heavily for Miss Kitty White, to the point of deserting his mouse-catching duties for his love. While Tom spends nights serenading his paramour and go-karting with her using musical notes born from his guitar that he then plucks out of the air, the mice live it up in his human mistress’s house smashing plates and gobbling up all the food. As a result, the woman boots him out of house and home. Dejected, Tom runs off to his love, only to discover she is the mother of a huge brood of mini-Tom kittens. What Tom does next will literally take viewers’ breaths away; at the very least his action qualifies this cartoon as not suitable for very young viewers.

The look of this animated short is very stylish in a minimalist comic-strip way, with enough interesting black-and-white background images to suggest a tidy semi-rural neighbourhood and an interesting use of distance perspective. There are enough sight gags to keep viewers interested: Tom being blamed for the mess the mice create, Tom turning his tunes into go-karts so he and his girlfriend can go racing, and Tom discovering that he is the father of a horde of little Toms. Title cards help move the plot and the action along.

Technically this is a decent little film (with a dark suicidal ending) that demonstrates what animators were capable of in the early years of film animation, with high aesthetic values being possible to achieve even in those early days.

The Little Pest: beaten up, walloped, drowned – what’s a pesky baby brother to do?

Dick Huemer, “The Little Pest” (1931)

Chiefly remarkable for its depiction of sibling-on-sibling violence, this short cartoon stars the boy Scrappy, who would go on to be a main character of several other short cartoons by US animator Dick Huemer. The style of animation is typical of cartoons of its time (late 1920s / early 1930s) with characters having rubbery arms and legs and capable of actions far beyond their real-life equivalents.

Scrappy and his pet dog decide to go on a fishing trip, and baby brother Oopie wants to tag along as well. Despite Scrappy’s reactions – which include smacking him and throwing him as far as possible, with the dog’s eager co-operation – Oopie manages to play a few tricks on Scrappy and the pooch, and (incredibly) arrives first at the lake to start fishing. The fish play a trick on the brothers by tying their fishing lines together underwater and Scrappy ends up hauling Oopie through the water and back onto dry land. Incensed at Oopie’s constant interruption, Scrappy hurls the bub into the water where he drowns. Suddenly realising he might end up on death row for killing the bub, Scrappy rescues Oopie and revives him – only for the brat to say he wants a drink of water! The next thing Scrappy does to Oopie doesn’t bear thinking about as the end credits soon start to roll.

It’s definitely not a cartoon to show children in case they get any strange ideas about how to treat their younger brothers and sisters. The tone is very sadistic and not a little creepy though it is funny to watch Oopie being walloped again and again and coming back for more punishment. Apart from this, there isn’t much else about the cartoon, its plot and characters that makes it stand out from other cartoons of its time.

Balloon Land: a fantasy fairy land where life is fragile, death is close by and a serial killer is on the rampage

Ub Iwerks, “Balloon Land” (1935)

For sure this cartoon with the Hansel-and-Gretel morality fairy-tale plot is weird and dark, and its theme of the fragility of life and the randomness with which life is given and can be taken away by violence can be very disturbing, even for adult viewers. In Balloon Land, everything – even the trees and rocks, and the figures of famous 1930s comedians Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin – is made of balloons. An inventor creates a balloon boy and a balloon girl, and gives them life by pumping air into them. He warns them that they are mere air and can be easily destroyed if they go into the forest and meet the dreaded Pincushion Man, who will pop them dead with his dreaded pins. The boy laughs at the warning and drags the girl into the forest (a sexual intercourse metaphor) where, lo and behold, they come across Pincushion Man (voiced by Billy Bletcher, who did work for Walt Disney) who has been eavesdropping on the boy boasting about how all the tales about Pincushion man are baloney. The villain chases the children and they run back into Balloon Land where they sound the town alarm by pulling all the bottles out of the mouths of babes!

When Pincushion Man convinces the village idiot to allow him to enter Balloon Land (and kills the poor fellow as well – in these old, unself-consciously racist cartoons, the black guy is always the first to die), he goes on a murderous rampage across town killing balloon people with his huge phallic pin. The balloon boy and girl call on the army to mobilise and soldiers roll out their weapons of goop-filled catapults to stop the villain dead in his tracks. The army eventually covers Pincushion Man in tree sap goop, the whole ball rolls off a cliff and Pincushion Man disappears, perhaps forever.

As might be expected of a land where everyone and everything is made of balloons, the look of the film is colourful and rubbery-wet, and balloon animals make squidgy sounds. (That’s bound to get some rubber enthusiasts more than a little excited.) Sight gags involving balloon elasticity and the tendency of balloons to fly in circles when popped abound. Inventive plot twists ensure that the film never goes stale but remains fresh and vibrant. Bletcher does an excellent job in giving gleefully malevolent life to Pincushion Man through his voice. The desperate battle that Balloon Land fights to get rid of Pincushion Man, if its citizens are to survive, gives the cartoon an edgy quality.

The film does carry a conservative message that young people should obey their elders and not challenge what they say or otherwise transgress social conventions. The balloon children learn this lesson the hard way but make amends for the trouble they cause by raising the alarm so that Balloon Land can mobilise its defences quickly. The other lesson they will learn is that life is fragile and precious, and death is never far away and could take them at any time.

Blue Cat Blues: a Tom and Jerry cartoon comments on materialism, capitalist society and the class divide

William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, “Blue Cat Blues” (1956)

With dark themes of depression, substance abuse and suicide, this Tom and Jerry cartoon demonstrates that these lovable cat-and-mouse animated shorts were not targeted solely at young children. The cartoon is unusual also in that Tom and Jerry are portrayed as friends supporting each other, and not as eternal adversaries inflicting extreme sadistic violence upon each other. Jerry also narrates (in voiceover) the sequence of events that has led Tom into an existential hell, from which there is no escape except death.

Like all other roads leading to hell, Tom’s particular paved path started innocently enough: he becomes infatuated with a lovely lady cat and is completely obsessed with winning her attentions. Unfortunately he is competing with rival cat Butch who has more piles of money than he has lives to waste. If Tom buys a bouquet, Butch lays on a wreath; if Tom buys a ring with a microscopic diamond, Butch buys a rock so large that you need to wear a welder’s mask to see it; and if Tom buys a second-hand jalopy by signing away his life and those of his descendants down to the seventh generation, Butch simply runs over it with the most impossibly lengthy coupe money can buy. No matter what sacrifices Tom makes to win over the object of his love, the lady cat is easily bought off by Butch’s manipulations.

Tom descends into abysses of depression and milk abuse, and attempts suicide by falling into a stormwater drain, but faithful pal Jerry tries to rescue him and give moral support whenever he can. In the 1950s however, there were few psychological support services for depressed cats and eventually Tom ends up on a railway line. Jerry reflects on his own good fortune of having gained romantic love – until he spies his girlfriend being unfaithful to him by being hitched to a rich mouse in his coupe with a “Just Married” sign on it!

The dark and sombre tone is lightened (but not much) by slapstick humour that relies on exaggeration to induce smiles and laughs, but too much repetition of such burlesque wears thin. Sight gags such as Tom getting drunk on milk are amusing. However the march towards doom is relentlessly brisk and very little in the animation (not particularly good) or in the characters’ backgrounds and previous adventures can stave off the inevitable as the train whistle is heard in the distance. The cartoon can be seen as a slight social commentary on shallow materialism, the damage capitalist society can do to people who try to compete against those with more power and wealth, and on the class divide that ruins Tom.

Swing You Sinners! – horror morality story goes to extremes in imaginative animation

Dave Fleischer, “Swing You Sinners!” (1930)

A bizarre little cartoon short, filled with the most startling surreal imagery and mobile rubber-limbed characters typical of cartoons in the late 1920s / early 1930s, and a horror morality story that doesn’t end well for its main character to boot, “Swing You Sinners!” has lasted extremely well for its age. The animation is as extreme as its creators’ imaginations, the technology available to them as animators and the mores of Western and US society in 1930, coming out of the Prohibition era, allow it to be. Starring Bimbo, the pet dog of famous 1930s US animators Max and Dave Fleischer’s creation Betty Boop, the cartoon is a commentary on a dissipated life. Bimbo has spent his days stealing chickens, evading the law and generally being disrespectful to authority … until one fateful night when a police officer chases him into a cemetery and Bimbo finds himself trapped in a place that locks itself up and swallows the key, and ghosts, spirits and demons gleefully emerge from graves and underground to torment him. Many sight gags that would have been familiar to 1930s audiences abound, including a stereotype of an evil Jewish fellow.

After being chased all over the graveyard by various ghoulies, and tripped up by gravestones that come alive and dance around him, Bimbo tries to escape them all by going into a barn, only to meet more creepy beings that try to kill him with knives and nooses. He jumps out of the barn but the building comes alive and pursues him to the ends of the Earth. Bimbo has no choice but to fall into Hell and everlasting agony.

There is very little story and the plot is synchronised with the jazz ragtime music soundtrack which features some quite disturbing lyrics. The cartoon moves at a very brisk pace with characters morphing from one grotesque thing into another at alarming speed and Bimbo forced to keep galloping for his life faster and faster. The animation becomes ever more deliciously deranged and intense with teams of spooks persecuting Bimbo in ways that might recall the pursuit of black people by hordes of Ku Klux Klan members of the period.

While there’s no hope of redemption for poor Bimbo, and his punishments are extreme, the cartoon itself is a fun ride through highly imaginative animation that throws all the rule books out the window and follows its own deviant path. It is this creativity that keeps the cartoon fresh and startling, even to those who have seen it many times.

Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.