The Farewell is a beautiful and endearing comedy/drama that portrays a quirk of Eastern culture in a modern world. The film is directed by Lulu Wang (Posthumous), a writer/filmmaker who was born in Beijing, China, before moving to the US.
Her family experienced a tragedy that most families go through, but they handled it in an Eastern way, which clashed with some of Wang’s Western upbringing. The Farewell depicts these events in a funny and deeply moving way — it is Wang’s catharsis. And like any great emotional release, it must be experienced personally.
What I appreciated most about The Farewell is that its narrative and performances are so nuanced. Instead of tugging at our heartstrings clumsily, the film is happy to just observe and relate. Wang’s camera is happy to linger, letting us drink in the emotional state of the characters. Likewise, many of the conversations seem to organically carry on. Admittedly, a couple of scenes of exposition are a bit long, but it’s a small complaint.
At its core, the story is about a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) from Changchun. After feeling ill, she goes through some medical tests. The diagnosis isn’t good. She has terminal lung cancer and only has a few months to live.
Despite its seemingly sorrowful premise, The Farewell surprises and moves you with its consistently uplifting and amusing moments
And here is the clash. In the West, she would be informed so that she could prepare for her final days. In the East, this news is kept secret so that she can live her life to the fullest, without worrying about the illness.
Watching the film was an unexpectedly personal experience. At first, I felt that she should be told. After all, I would want to be told myself. But I recall that one of my own grandparents wasn’t told and lived the final days without concern. By the end of The Farewell, I realised that there are no easy answers, especially in the East, where families can be more co-dependent.
The performances in The Farewell are excellent. Standing out is Awkwafina as the Chinese-American writer, Billi. I’ve only seen the comedian in bit roles, where she provides comic relief. Here, she is spectacular. Her subtle and deeply emotional performance is powerful.
Awkwafina’s character epitomises the struggle. She talks to her Nai Nai regularly from America, and the two have a close relationship. After suffering failure as a writer, she needs her grandmother more than ever.
Unfortunately, this is when the devastating news comes. Her Nai Nai is dying and doesn’t have many days left. Her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) know how close she is to her Nai Nai and are fearful that she’ll spill the secret. They want to minimise her contact with her grandmother.
Her cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) is getting married in Changchun. The plan is to use the wedding to unite the family and celebrate Nai Nai’s life while still maintaining the facade. Here, Billi defies her parents and goes to Changchun. She promises her family that she’ll carry the façade, but finds it difficult to carry on the lie. She fights with members of her family, and even the doctor. Her view is that the truth should be told.
The Farewell moves from strength to strength. It’s usually difficult to end these types of films without reaching for clichés, but Wang finds a way. Despite its seemingly sorrowful premise, The Farewell surprises us with its consistently uplifting and amusing moments. This is a film that will stay with you long after it’s over.
Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 18th, 2019