A Simple Goodbye is a profound and beautiful exercise in understatement. Writer/director Degena Yun stars as Shanshan, a 20-something college dropout who returns to Beijing to help take care of her dying father. He has small cell lung cancer, she explains in a soft-spoken voiceover. It’s the most aggressive kind of lung cancer around. This attention to the enormous impact of small things is at the heart of the drama, echoed in each character’s exploration of the moments that have made them who they are and alienated them from those they love most.
Shanshan’s father (Tu Men) is a once-legendary Mongolian filmmaker with a gruff exterior and a penchant for self-destructive entertainment; her mother (Ai Liya) is a businesswoman frantically attempting to maintain an illusion of normalcy in the face of chaos. Shanshan herself is adrift, desperate to connect yet unable to do so. Too old to be called an adolescent, she nonetheless exhibits the same fragility and rebelliousness often associated with that demographic. In a none-too-subtle nod to millenials’ screen addictions, she also spends the first half of the movie texting an unknown Internet ‘friend’ (whose name turns out to be a perfect metaphor for her current state of existence).
The action and dialogue are brimming things left unsaid; viewers are privy only to those ripples strong enough to reach the surface of this deep pool of family conflict. The film’s aesthetic adds to the sense of disconnection and voyeurism, with many shots framed by doorways and window frames, or played across translucent reflective surfaces like windows, glass walls and windshields.
When a character does burst through the placidity, the contrast is powerful. In one scene, Shanshan drives into the woods with her father in order to release a little bird that flew into her aunt’s house. The idea is that setting the bird free will clear her father’s karma of a past transgression that her aunt believes has caused his cancer. On the way there, her father launches into a familiar litany of criticisms ranging from how Shanshan has wasted the family money by dropping out of college in the U.K. to how her grunge-style wardrobe makes her look “like a prostitute.” Every other time he’s treated his daughter like a failure, she has withdrawn further into herself. This time, she snaps.
“You think I wanted the U.K.? Did I choose that?” she asks, her voice brittle. Being sent away from home is one of her greatest sources of trauma. She slams the car door, crouches down among the fallen leaves and screams like she’s been stabbed. The camera cuts back to the car. Her father sits in silence, something heavy settling into his features.
Her outburst over, Shanshan wordlessly returns to the car to get the bird cage. She doesn’t truly believe that the gesture will do any good and even wonders whether the bird will survive the harsh winter, but as she says, “Some lifeforms weren’t meant to live in cages.” The cage she’s talking about is a reference to the hospital room her father languishes in, but she might as well be talking about the cage of social expectations and cultural norms that she (and her mother, grandmother and aunt) is caught up in.
The closer Shanshan and her father get to understanding each other, the thinner the ice between them and the less drama they need to indulge in in order to be heard. Their ultimate moment of connection is marked by a return to silence, though it seems inaccurate to call it a ‘return’ when this new silence is entirely different: instead of being filled with resentment, it radiates peace.
Featuring an immensely talented cast and beautiful cinematography, A Simple Goodbye is a poetic look at the wide-reaching effects of the choices we make for ourselves and those we love.
Click here to watch the trailer.