Is lying ok? Does the reasoning behind your actions mean more than the actions themselves? Whose burden is it grieve loss? “The Farewell” is openly based on an actual lie about a family trying to hide the fact that their grandmother is dying from her while spending one last gathering with her. Director Lulu Wang creates a tale resembling an real situation in her life that thoughtfully discusses the difference in customs in China and America, and how her family handled those moral questions, seamlessly mixing cultures without ever resorting to clichés.
I saw this movie with my mother who only knew of Awkwafina’s leading role, and she ended up being surprised that a majority of the film is in Chinese (She loved it but was just caught off guard by this). If you are not a fan of foreign language films, then perhaps this could be the film that could change your mind. There is a nice mix of western-style interactions to balance out the heavily subtitled Chinese dialogue scenes. I encourage everyone to keep an open mind and you may be surprised with a delightful film that you otherwise may not have given a chance.
This film also takes a chance with its casting. The popular opinion amongst most movie fans is that it is typically a bad idea for comedic actors to test the waters in drama. We have all seen the likes of Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller flop on the big screen trying to convince us that they are serious people and it is noticeably difficult to watch. But the reality of it is that many actors rise to the challenge and deliver tremendous dramatic performances. The likes of Tom Hanks, Emma Stone, Robin Williams, and Jamie Foxx all began as comedy actors and they are now amongst royalty in Hollywood. As difficult as it may be for simple people like us to grasp, these Cadillacs of humans are talented. So talented, in fact, that just because they have proven they are good one type of acting does not mean they might not be even better at another.
Likewise, Awkwafina is mostly known for her comedic chops and her New York-style sarcasm, but in “The Farewell” she takes the leap to drama and holy crap does she flourish in a multi-lingual, understated, intimate and emotional role. Billi is a character of immense humanity, having to balance her grief with a façade that she fundamentally disagrees with. You can feel Billi’s love for Nai Nai and her disagreement with the way her family is handling her impending end with every interaction she has, both with her family and herself in her moments of solitude. She expresses so much with quiet subtlety but is not afraid to express powerful emotion when the time calls for it. She should be commended for her performance and we can safely add her name to the list of actors who can do well in both comedy and drama.
Nai Nai is the film’s most lovable character, brilliantly played by Shuzhen Zhou. She is kept in the dark about her own terminal diagnosis, which is a common practice in the East, and while her family tries to hide the harsh reality from her, she just showers them all with love. She is Billi’s paternal grandmother, and her relationship with Billi is clearly special, as they have maintained a close bond despite them living on different sides of the world. She is the supportive and loving figure in Billi’s life that seemingly her parents are not. And although it is not truly alluded to, I got the feeling that she knew her family was hiding something from her and played along for their sake, ironically doing exactly what they were trying to do to her. She is an emotional character and one that I hope we all have someone in our own lives resemble.
“The Farewell” is a humbling experience to watch, but it is a joy nonetheless. We, as viewers, are confronted with harsh realities of life and love, but even in the worst moments, the film never resorts to cynicism. Through the lens of Billi, we understand that we cannot control life and sometimes we must do something difficult for the sake of the people you love, even if you disagree. Part of being in a family, no matter what culture you are from, is that being in a family means you are never alone.
I believe that the most complimentary aspect of this film is that everyone involved seemed to genuinely care about the story. When you care for the material you are working on, the work seems less like work and more like a privilege. The heart in the story is palpable for everyone to see and any film that can sell that kind of emotion, even with a language and cultural difference from its audience is special.
This was a film that I had seldom seen any sort of marketing for. It’s lead, Awkwafina, is a burgeoning young star whom I adore very much, and I was hopeful the word would spread. While it appears that it is not exactly a box office juggernaut, reception for “The Farewell” has been near-universally positive. It might be a low-budget film, but I am thrilled that the industry has taken notice of what a well-crafted piece of cinema this movie is. This was one of my favorite films of the year and it is my hope that as many people can experience it as possible.
I give “The Farewell” a superb 9.0 out of 10
Directed by: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhou, Aoi Mizuhara,
Runtime: 1 Hour and 40 Minutes