In the golden days of Hollywood, studio moguls like Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and Irving Thalberg relied on pure gut instinct to determine if a movie in production was going to be a hit.
Cohn bragged that he had a foolproof formula for judging a preview showing: if he was bored, his posterior began to itch and he knew that changes had to be made or the film would bomb upon release.
Today’s studio heads have more sophisticated data for forecasting than Cohn’s sensitive rear portal. Marketing data now profiles ticket sales in every conceivable metric relationship: age, income, frequency of movie attendance, specific topics of interest (blockbuster only, action only, horror only, high concept thriller with mechanical collisions); no cross reference or combination of variables is left unanalyzed.
Cohn and company would have been intrigued by the product moviemaker’s prize most today: the so-called “tentpole” movie, a billion dollar blockbuster that covers operating losses for the studio’s entire fiscal year. This tentpole shelters from all financial miscalculation, spawns future installments and makes related items (capes, masks, action figures and the like) high demand merchandise.
In 2019, Disney studios have produced five films that have grossed more than a billion dollars on international screens. Cha-Ching, the movie sound effect producers love the best!
So isn’t it refreshing when a low budget, independent film sneaks into theaters and manages to hold its own in ticket receipts?
Such has happened this summer with The Farewell, a subtitled Chinese film written and directed by Lulu Wang. It has grossed close to $14 million while playing in only 800 theaters. Of course, that’s small change compared to Avengers: Endgame — the magical tentpole that has netted more than a billion dollar gate in 4,600 venues. The classic case of a totally commercial undertaking vs. a complex, intelligent work of art.
The Farewell is not easily categorized — it’s a very real, compelling story of a Chinese family caught in the conflict of an impending wedding and an impending death. There are moments of comedy, but the central theme of this film is the awareness of our mortality.
Commercial filmmakers have always had an uneasy relationship with death on the screen. There have been many memorable, melodramatic passings: Bonnie and Clyde being riddled by machine gun fire in their 1930’s Ford V8; Slim Pickens riding an Atom Bomb out of an airplane at the conclusion of Doctor Strangelove; and King Kong being slain on the Empire State Building. That’s to say nothing of Janet Leigh’s shower demise in Psycho, a scene which still terrorizes almost sixty years after its initial release.
But these are powerful, stylized passings. Over the years, only a few movies delve into the real deal, the type of expirations viewers can relate to on a frank, personal basis. The Farewell dares to explore that emotional terrain.
Without giving away too much, the family in The Farewell faces a discordant situation made all the more difficult by the clash of traditional mores with the modern world. The story centers on whether or not to tell the family matriarch, a wise, lovable, completely sympathetic woman, that she has received a terminal diagnosis. Some family members, reflecting conservative conventions, prefer to say nothing, while others want to inform her. All of this is played against the backdrop of a wedding which brings distant relatives home to an evolving, but not completely changed, Chinese society.
Those familiar with death customs in China are aware that a dramatic transformation is currently taking place. Established values, which incorporate a blend of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, are being assimilated into a system influenced by Western standards. So, while China now has an astounding 45% cremation rate, it still has professional mourners paid by the decibel, ancestor worship, and funerals that last for days. There is a new consciousness, but it is still just evolving.
A Chinese proverb states that “all of life is dream walking, all of death is going home.”
The Farewell is a profound, astute vision of that sentiment. And despite its subject matter, this is an uplifting, ultimately joyful movie. Not for the “blockbuster only” fan.