The Farewell is a movie by written and directed by Chinese-born American filmmaker Lulu Wang, based on a real-life event within her family, and stars Awkwafina as Billi, a young woman belonging to a Chinese family who is given news that their matriarchal grandmother has been diagnosed with an accelerated version of stage four cancer, and doesn’t have very long left to live. Knowing this, the family decides to keep the diagnosis a secret from their Nai Nai, instead scheduling a faux wedding between Billi’s only cousin and his new girlfriend to take place just a short while before she is expected to die. Billi is unsure of whether or not taking this approach is the right thing to do; after all, shouldn’t Nai Nai know about her diagnosis so she can be prepared for her eventual death? But her family is insistent, citing the need to keep the emotional burden of worrying about what will happen to her family off of Nai Nai’s shoulders, so she can rest peacefully, even with a little bit of hope leftover from the wedding. With the clock running down on Nai Nai’s impending passing, Billi must fight to keep from breaking the news to her grandmother, and decide whether the emotional burden of lying to Nai Nai is worse than the pain the family is attempting to spare her. The film also stars Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Gil Perez-Abraham, and Ines Laimins.
I’d heard a lot about The Farewell before going to see it in Chicago this past Tuesday, and most of what I heard had to do with the astounding nature of this film and its representation of Chinese families and cultures in American mainstream cinema, something that has been sorely lacking for quite some time; Crazy Rich Asians, the hit 2018 romantic comedy, was the first film in mainstream cinema to be shot with an all-Asian main cast in something like 25 years, and with the success of that film was bound to come more representation in that arena. Not only that, this was the latest drama from A24, a studio with which many independent filmmakers, and indeed some mainstream star-powers have found much new material to work with over the last number of years, churning out Oscar nominees like Lady Bird, smaller gems like this year’s High Life, new horrors like Hereditary, and the will-be-talked-about-forever Academy Awards upset Moonlight (which ended up snagging Best Picture from La La Land in a Steve-Harvey-like announcement snafu). Given the pedigree of those two facts, as well as reports surfacing that Awkwafina may well end up in the Best Actress race this coming Oscar season, I was ready for The Farewell to blow my mind. And it didn’t…but that’s a good thing.
That’s not to say there aren’t surprises in The Farewell; there are absolutely things that take place in the movie (or if you know the story) that don’t necessarily go where you’d expect them to if you’ve seen a movie like this before, or at least one that’s tried to be like this before, but the thing that’s most striking about this second feature from Lulu Wang is just how straightforward most of it is. You have the central conflict with the family deciding not to tell Nai Nai she’s dying and Billi believing this to be a bad idea, but that’s about it as far as plot goes. The movie is so extremely focused on everything that goes into this conflict, from the philosophical “your life isn’t just yours” angle to the drama between family members being unable to hide their emotions to the surprisingly hilarious first half of the movie that falls somewhere between a culturally astute comedy and purely awkward familial farce, that it doesn’t have time to deal with any lengthy subplots or B-stories, which are instead relegated to being added emotional trials for Billi to be dealing with in order to make it all the more difficult for her not to spill the beans to Nai Nai just for some form of closure. Billi is really close to her grandmother, and you can see that through the writing and the performances of both Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhao. It’s incredibly simple, and incredibly effective in its simplicity. Everyone can relate to experiencing loss and the trials that come with that turmoil and grief, but to add to that the need to lie in order to protect the one you’ll soon be grieving from that emotional turmoil makes it all the more heartbreaking of an endurance test, and nothing demonstrates Wang’s understanding of this better than her pin-sharp script.
I have no idea if we’ll be talking about The Farewell comes Oscar time or not, but if we are, it will (or should) land a nod in the screenplay category as its surest bet, because what Lulu Wang is able to do with these characters in an hour and a half is astounding, not because any of the plot blows your mind or anything, but because despite that not being a factor, I found myself invested more in these characters than most of the ones I’ve watched on screen in 2019, and I only got to know these people when this movie started. Unlike something like Avengers or Toy Story, I hadn’t come to know these characters over the course of a decade or more, which is what makes it so wonderful that Wang’s development of these characters makes them probably the second or third most compellingly performed I’ve seen on screen this year. Wang’s writing, as I mentioned, is pin-sharp, tackling every possible angle one could have on either side of this conflict, and funneling those angles into honest, raw dialogue that feels like it was lifted straight from a documentary about these characters. This is made all the more impressive when it’s soon revealed that a majority of the film is spoken in Mandarin Chinese. Whether that would place it in the Academy’s Best Foreign Language category, rather than simply being an American film considered for Best Picture alone (if that’s in the cards), it remains to be seen.
The movie is also beautifully directed by Wang, and with every frame selected and masterfully captured by cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano painting a portrait oozing with life and a wonderous sense of beauty beyond the frame. The photography of China, both in its landscape and within the halls of each room, evokes a feeling of living with these characters and breathing every second of this wonderful story, each movement and still shot practically forcing new life into a narrative about losing that very life. There is one shot throughout the run-time of the movie that I’m not sure I understood had a purpose, but it could well be that the meaning of it is simply lost on me only having seen the film one time.
And speaking of those characters, I’m not sure if we’ll see more honest, raw performances from any cast this year than we will in this movie. Awkwafina gives perhaps the best performance I’ve ever seen out of her, and with her scene-stealing Crazy Rich Asians shtick gone, she’s able to really delve into Billi and what makes this such a struggle for her, having been raised in the United States, where one’s life belongs to oneself instead of being part of a whole. The cultural commentary is baked into every line, and Awkwafina absorbs every bit of it, processing multiple lines of thought before she even blinks her eyes. In fact, everyone in the cast is operating on such a level of seemingly ease-supported acting expertise that not once did I ever question a single character moment from any of them (something only aided by the notion that Wang refused to cast a single non-Asian actor in the film, helping it to feel remarkably organic in its plot and character developments). The scene-stealer here, though, turns out to be Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai, who instantly makes this old grandmother character of hers the most endearing and hilarious character we’ve seen on screen this year. Her performance is remarkable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her land on Oscar nomination for what she’s able to pull off.
No, The Farewell won’t blow your mind with a twisty narrative or unexpected character turn, but it’s also not meant to. It’s meant to make you think, feel, consider the traditions and breaks from tradition in a culture so different from our own that we may at first find it a bit strange but eventually come around to its differences as part of its significance. To have a movie so embedded in Chinese culture that not a single thing about feels the least bit American shouldn’t be such an astounding notion, but it is, and the fact that not a single cast member is of non-Asian descent lends to that fact. The script is witty, funny, and sharp, the performances are organic and magnificent, the story is emotional and moving, the direction is about as perfect as it can get for a film like this, and I’m sure this Sundance hit will end up at the Oscars one way or another. After being given several days to reflect on it, this just might be my new favorite film of 2019…so far, anyway.
I’m giving “The Farewell” a 10/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.