Aida Vucic | 13/09/2019
A quietly heartbreaking, evocative treatise on the power of love in the face of crushing loss.
“Based on an actual lie”, The Farewell is Lulu Wang’s recount of her family’s extraordinary efforts to conceal her grandmothers cancer diagnosis. Wang’s version of herself, Billi (Awkwafina), sees her as a starving artist who lives in New York City, having immigrated from China as a child with her parents. Billi has continued to remain in contact with her extended family and regularly chats with her Nai Nai (mandarin for grandmother). The pair have a strong affection for one another, and the film itself opens on a conversation between them. During this conversation Nai Nai is at the doctors office, where her sister learns that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
Rather than informing Nai Nai, instead she informs the rest of the family in accordance with Chinese tradition. They decided to keep the news from Nai Nai, and so an elaborate scheme is concocted: a wedding between Billi’s cousin and his girlfriend of three months is orchestrated to provide a guise for the family to be reunited and say their goodbyes. Billi finds it difficult to comply with her family's decision not to tell her Nai Nai about the diagnosis and against her parents advice, Billi travels to China to take part in the ruse.
Wang avoids over-westernising the film and rather immerses the audience into the Chinese culture, with much of the film in Chinese. The film also perfectly balances comedy, whilst also subtly intertwining an underlying tone of melancholy. As a relatively new entrant into the pantheon of theatrical cinema release, Wang should be praised for the restraint she has shown, as well as her blatant rejection of creating a mainstream immigrant story.
Wang also combines western and eastern elements in a blend that never feels overly simplified around key Chinese details, locales, or traditions, but also never feels inaccessible or unrecognisable, even to the most western of viewers. It gives this piece mainstream appeal, while also providing a tremendous learning platform for everyday Chinese life.
From a performance perspective, this is Awkwafina’s show. Awkwafina is mesmerising as Billi. Crazy Rich Asians may have propelled her into the forefront of Hollywood, but her abilities as an actor will undoubtedly cement her as a true talent, and here her comedic chops fall to the wayside in lieu of a true dramatic talent.
Zhao Shuzhen, in her role as Nai Nai, injects a vibrancy and energy to her role which makes us soften every moment she’s on screen and even yearn for our own grandmothers. The intimacy between the pair is undeniable and just adds to the poignancy of the film.
In the end, this is a movie that feels special. It's a world you want to live in for just a bit longer; one that, in the darkest of times, brings forward those nostalgic emotions around the very best parts of family. This is a truly special cinematic experience, and one we would encourage you to explore as soon as possible.
Understated, culturally sensitive, enlightening and, ultimately, a movie that will have you smiling on the way out and thinking about it for days after. Make a beeline for The Farewell while it is still in cinemas.