THE FAREWELL (2019) – Lulu Wang’s Masterful Use of Vertical Depth

**There are some images that could be spoilers contained in this post, so beware if you haven’t seen the film

I just got done watching Lulu Wang’s emotional, touching film, The Farewell, and I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between some of the photography in this film and the films of masters like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu.

Mizoguchi and Ozu were known as master craftsmen for their brilliant use of space and well choreographed framing. Ozu’s subdued family dramas were often filmed inside the home with his camera positioned on the floor and, like Mizoguchi, though to a lesser extent, farther away from the actors than classical Hollywood framing. Mizoguchi often placed his camera at a fixed point to showcase multiple dimensions of the space he was filming and let the scene play out in long-take.

As movie goers we’re used to seeing classical storytelling devices such as tight close-ups and simple two-shots, each used according to the purpose of the scene. When things get emotionally heavy the director will cut to a close-up view of the actor in order to focus on their expressions, while two-shots carry less emotion and often involve characters sharing information or just conversing.

Wang and director of photography Anna Franquesa Solano utilize these classical methods when necessary, but it’s their use of non-traditional, vertical space that made me recall the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi. Let me start with some examples.

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The film was shot in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1, meaning the width of the image is far greater than the height, as is evident from the screencap above. What interested me the most is the vertical space used in these images. Above you can see how this type of spacing is employed.

We’re seeing a reflection in a mirror but the amount of depth it projects is remarkable. Nai Nai is the central figure of scene but she is positioned in the background of the frame as she talks on the phone with her granddaughter, Billi. Notice that she’s seated in a fixed position while the other characters in the scene move about the frame.

The image is conveying so much more information by including the space between the camera and the main action. We get a glimpse of life at Nai Nai’s home: her sister is going about her business, possibly doing housework, and Nai Nai’s partner, Mr. Li, is shuffling through the frame with his cup of coffee or tea. These are mundane actions but they add more depth to the world in which this story takes place.

Here are some more examples:

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The framing of each image is intentionally crafted in these specific ways. Not only is the entirety of the width of the frame employed, but in each image we see action occurring across multiple planes. In the top image the central focus of the scene plays out in the background between Nai Nai and Billi, who are in focus, while characters in the foreground are preparing dinner and are out of focus.

Classical framing would have Nai Nai and Billi in the foreground in a traditional two-shot with the other characters out of frame, or simply standing next to or behind them. But in Wang’s framing we get to see the morose look on Billi’s mom’s face, a reflection of the sadness the family is feeling. So there are different emotions at play within this one frame: the warmth between Billi and Nai Nai is contrasted with the cold sadness on mom’s face. This style of framing allows Wang to explore multiple emotions at once and it frees your eyes up to wander and gather so much more than a standard image.

The second image uses the vertical space for humorous effect. Nai Nai and Billi are conversing in the foreground of the scene while the couple in the background are being photographed for their wedding photos. This is a visual joke because the plot revolves around a fake wedding staged to cover up the real reason the entire family returns home, that being the terminal illness Nai Nai has been diagnosed with but is unaware of. The couple being photographed is Billi’s cousin and Nai Nai’s grandson, Hao Hao, and his girlfriend, Aiko. The humor being that the family is going to such great lengths to hide the truth from Nai Nai that they are willing to organize certain events that go hand-in-hand with wedding preparations, such as taking wedding photos. There’s an extra bit of humor that occurs in the back right corner of the frame when another couple accidentally stumbles into the wrong room and then quickly exit.

Again, the depth of the frame is used with such excellence and Wang packs every square inch to create such an immersive effect. Film is primarily a visual art, and in this film the visuals drive and enrich the narrative.

Three more examples:

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In each scene above there is a primary and a secondary purpose to the framing, whether that be humorous or dramatic. But that can only be achieved by this use of the vertical dimension. It creates this immersive space where your eye can wander from the primary action and gather more information about the world we are watching.

The spacing also serves the thematic elements of the film. The story is about a displaced family that must come together to pay their respects, which is cinematically well-worn territory. Nai Nai is the matriarch who lives in China while Billi and her family have been living in the United States since she was 6. Much is made of the fact that the whole family hasn’t been all together for decades, and the physical space between characters in the frame illustrates the distanced family dynamic. farewell11

This image isn’t particularly pretty to look at like some of the other ones, but it still illustrates my idea of multiple planes of action and space. In the foreground and out of focus is Billi’s dad with a sullen look on his face while Billi is positioned in the middle having a dramatic conversation with mom, who is in focus in the background. These images are all incredibly well staged and that kind of blocking really augments the world Lulu Wang has created. Even in this small space, there is a distance between these characters, both literally and figuratively.

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Again, notice the distance between the characters. Because Wang chose to utilize the mid- and background of this shot, we get to experience the distance between them. The disconnect can be felt through the visuals. These quiet scenes when no one is talking can be so much more powerful when the director knows how to tell the story through the imagery.

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This is just a marvelous picture staged with incredibly lush imagery. Billi and Nai Nai are the main focus but Wang uses a mirror, once again, to stretch the depth of the frame. In the back right portion of the frame we can see the supposedly betrothed couple being photographed again, which is both humorous and sad. All these little touches take what could have been a simple, flat frame of two people talking and turns it into an image with multiple emotions.

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These two images focus on Billi’s feeling of loneliness and solitude using the vertical shapes of the hotel corridor and subway car. For a story rich with emotional baggage Wang refuses to traditionally square the camera up with the actor’s facial expressions to imbue the scene with emotion.

Like all stories, this one must end and by the climax Wang has reinforced in our brains that there is physical and emotional ground that has been covered. All of this is in an effort to earn the emotional climax of the film:

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The family is leaving for the airport and must bid adieu to their beloved Nai Nai. They say their goodbyes and start driving away and Wang delivers the bittersweet image of Nai Nai waving farewell from a mid-shot that gets farther and farther away until we see the sadness overtake her. In the end, she must be comforted by her sister as the car rounds the corner and out of sight.

The real sadness of the film doesn’t lie with a terminal diagnosis, but rather with the state of the family. Nai Nai has no idea she may never see her family again, and yet Wang shows us that she is the one who is overcome with sadness as the physical space between her and her family grows. This is powerful cinema and a stroke of absolute genius from a filmmaker adept at using all the tools at her disposal. I can almost see Ozu and Mizoguchi nodding with mutual respect for Lulu Wang, and for good reason.

 

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