I knew about this film when it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year. Yet for whatever reason, it sort of fell off my radar until A24 started promoting it vehemently for its theatrical release. I’m so glad they did and this film deserved ALL their backing. It simply deserves to be seen.
The Farewell is writer/director Lulu Wang‘s sophomore directorial work, and it’s one I can readily describe as masterful. The tagline says ‘Based on an actual lie’ which is provocative yet accurate given that it’s Wang’s own personal story. The film opens with a young woman, Billi (Awkwafina) on the streets of NYC chatting on her mobile with her grandma whom se calls Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) in China. The film is mostly in Chinese, though occasionally the characters would be speaking in English as Billi’s family has immigrated to the US. Soon we find out that Nai Nai is dying from lung cancer, but her family decides to hide the grim prognosis from her and plan a fake wedding instead so everyone could gather before she dies.
It’s a deceptively simple premise but one that packs a wallop. It’s a deep, emotional, culturally-resonant film that’s also filled with humor and whimsy. I’m always in awe of filmmakers who can mix pathos, comedy and emotional drama seamlessly and Wang certainly achieved that here. The Farewell feels like an authentic experience of a Chinese family, as well as those of Chinese Americans, especially the second/third generation individuals who have to straddle the two worlds. As someone who wasn’t born in the US but have lived here more than half my life, I totally get the ‘I don’t belong anywhere’ feeling, of being torn by the two cultures.
The film focuses on Billi who has trouble concealing her grief. She’s particularly close to Nai Nai, so despite her parents’ protest, she went ahead and attend the ‘wedding’ in China. I love how the film highlights the family dynamics and how much of the conversations take place in the dining table. My mouth watered seeing all those yummy food on the dining table. It’s so integral in Chinese culture as love and affection is often expressed through food. In this story, ‘the lie’ becomes the one thing that unites the family as they all have to bond together to keep the secret hidden from Nai Nai. There’s several poignant discussion between Billi, her dad and uncle about how it’s practically illegal to do such things in the US. Yet in China, and perhaps another culture, this is not only customary but also a courtesy… ‘a person doesn’t just belong to one self, but to his/her family’ as her uncle points out. It’s the family’s ‘duty’ to carry the burden for the sick one… which is quite a foreign sentiment in the West, but that is the point. This East-West discussion has been done before in other films but it doesn’t feel clichéd nor recycled here.
Apparently this is the first ever PG-rated film out of A24 film, and I can definitely say it’s a film you can bring your whole family to see. I think it’s an accessible film for American audiences, even those who aren’t usually into films with subtitles. The script is punchy, lively and even poetic at times, but remains authentic to the journey/experience of the characters. Though my own grandma is very different from Nai Nai depicted here, I could definitely relate to her relationship with Billi and some of their conversations are downright nostalgic.
I have to devote an entire paragraph just for Awkwafina who’s absolutely perfect here in her first starring role. The first time I saw her was in Crazy Rich Asians in which she was the scene stealer as a gregarious, colorful, sociable BFF. Her performance couldn’t be more different here as Billi is more a recluse who barely smiles and wears practically the same gray/black outfit everyday. She’s truly the heart and soul of the movie as the film is framed from her perspective. It truly displays her range as an actor and I sure hope she continues to gain more leading roles in the future.
The supporting cast are an excellent mix of veteran character actors and newbies. Tzi Ma has been in a plethora of TV and films (I definitely remember him in Arrival and you’ve likely just seen him in the new Mulan trailer). He and Diana Lin are excellent as Billi’s parents, Lin portrays the quintessential strong, no-nonsense Chinese matriarch who actually reminds me of my own grandma. The mother/daughter relationship is one of the major highlights here as well, where things aren’t always rosy but in the end they understand each other. I’m curious about the casting process to find Nai Nai. Shuzhen Zhao‘s quite good in her first ever acting role and she has a believable rapport with Awkwafina which is so key to the story.
I really love Wang’s direction here and I’d even argue she should get nominations as Best Director come award season. Now I’m really curious to check out her directorial debut Posthumous (starring Brit Marling and Jack Huston) that’s available on Amazon Prime. The pacing of this movie is just right, and at 1 hour 38 minutes there’s barely any wasted minute. Her directing style shows some flairs but not overly over-the-top. I like the slo-mo of the family walking towards the camera following a pivotal scene, and the long shots of the umbrella-clad family scurrying in the rain. Kudos to Spanish DP Anna Franquesa Solano for her brilliant cinematography and composer Alex Weston for the absolutely gorgeous music that adds so much to the mood. The music is a perfect mix of heartbreak and that feeling of ‘dissonant’ that also has a vibrant, lively vibe.
I’m thrilled that in the past couple of years there are more and more films that tell the Asian-American story… Crazy Rich Asians might’ve opened a door for such storytelling, and since then I’ve seen Go Back To China, Always Be My Maybe, that are all highly-recommended. Hopefully we see even more diverse voices in cinema as there are SO many tales worth telling from parts of the world that don’t get explored often in Hollywood.
I sure hope the Academy won’t overlook this next year, especially for Wang and Awkwafina. Lastly, I want to implore you to see this film in the cinema. Trust me, all the hype is justified and it still holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 107 reviews. Be sure to pack tissues when you go see it, it’ll make you laugh and cry in equal measure in this joyful, poignant celebration of family.
Have you seen The Farewell? I’d love to hear what you think!