The Farewell: A Modest And Poignant Family Drama
Writer/director Lulu Wang’s second full-length feature, The Farewell, a modestly complex family drama, is nothing short of an indie breakthrough. Backed by the consistently great A24, the story is one that’s close to the chest for Wang, and while its story is culturally specific, the universality of its themes give it a relatable appeal that transcends cultural background and geographical borders.
The film follows a Chinese family who, when they discover their beloved Grandmother Shuzhen Zhou) has only a short while left to live, decide to keep her in the dark and schedule an impromptu wedding to gather before she passes. Billi (Awkwafina), feeling like a fish out of water in her home country, struggles with the family's decision to hide the truth from her grandmother.
The film is, as it informs you in an opening title card, “based on an actual lie,” and it’s one that Wang lived out fully. Several years ago, her grandmother, her father’s mother, who she affectionately referred to as “Nai Nai,” was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and given an estimated 3 months to live. Wang’s family believed that the shock of this diagnosis would seal Nai Nai’s fate, and so they collectively opted to keep it a secret from her — something which, as the film reveals, is a completely normal thing to do in Eastern culture. Instead of delivering the news, Wang’s family rushed the wedding of her cousin so everyone had a good reason to visit China and see Nai Nai once again.
Wang knew that there was something to her experience with her own Nai Nai — who is still alive today, 6 years after the cancer diagnosis, and still not aware she’d been announced terminal — that she could work into a film, and she channelled all the emotions, oddity, and light comedy of it into The Farewell. However, getting the film made was not the easiest task for Wang, who struggled with potential financiers who wanted a “big, broad, ethnic comedy” like last year’s successful rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians. Wang knew that that wasn’t an option, and she reluctantly tabled the project until she was approached by Neil Drumming, a producer on NPR’s “This American Life,” with an opportunity to tell her story about Nai Nai. Within 48 hours after Wang’s appearance on Drumming’s show, her phone was ringing off the hook from film producers who were finally eager to embrace her vision.
Wang’s quietly modest vision couldn’t be further from what the Hollywood producers wanted initially, and it is all the better for it. She wraps The Farewell in an understated package that is full of rich, cultural insight and universal depth. It’s like a fortune cookie; plain, traditional, sweet, and with a fortune that is sure to resonate with all viewers in some capacity regardless of their origins. There’s nothing flashy about Wang’s style, which is soft and restrained. She does wonders with static shots, packing a lot into her composition, making full utilization of foreground, middle, and background.
Occasionally, she lets her hair down and plays with more movement and flash, like the slow-motion family trudge back to the hotel from Nai Nai’s house or the spinning camera blur at the table during the wedding, but those moments jar slightly from the quiet stillness of the rest of the film. To give more emotional depth, Wang punctuates the story with poetic beats that are very unobtrusive and subtle — moments like the bird in the apartment/hotel, the smoke dancing in the red glow of the window, the flashes of the old Asian women in the passing subway, Billi locking eyes with a Chinese call girl in a nearby apartment window. She also creates these interesting moments that could be emotional, funny, or both, depending on how you look at it. For instance, an uncle’s sobbing breakdown during a wedding toast can be emotionally touching or oddly comedic, and The Farewell is ripe with moments that sneak up on the viewer from many emotional angles.
The personal aspect of the story can be deeply felt (similar to another A24 film from this year, The Last Black Man in San Francisco), and gives the film an added layer of charm. The performances from its almost entirely Asian cast are aces across the board, but Awkwafina is the clear standout. We all knew she was funny, and she flexes her pitch-perfect comedic timing here, but more surprisingly, she shows incredible range as a performer and delivers a career best performance that teases a lot of future promise. Another performance worth noting is newcomer Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai. She is absolutely adorable and her performance is very natural, genuine, and warm. I loved the granddaughter/grandmother relationship and how believably close and loving it was; everything about it felt so touching and authentic.
At the very surface, The Farewell is about the philosophical differences between Eastern and Western cultures, individual life versus the collective whole, but more universally, it is about the sacrifices and burdens we endure for the ones we love. Given Billi’s (and Wang’s) first generation Chinese-American status, the film’s mournful “farewell” doubles as a sorrowful realization of the life and culture that was left behind in pursuit of a new life in America. It also plays with morality and poses an interesting question: if a lie has good intentions, does it make it okay? Within the context of the film, the answer would be, yes, and given that the real Nai Nai is still alive and kicking (as we are shown in the end credits), maybe the Chinese are on to something here…
There’s a lot to love here, but in particular, I loved the film’s opposing perspective from that of my own, the cultural experience it presents, and the universality of its themes. There’s really something that everyone can relate to here, and these are the kinds of stories I am so so glad that we are getting more of nowadays.
Recommendation: A look into other cultures is one of cinema’s greatest gift, especially when done this well. Definitely add The Farewell to your watchlist and check it out as soon as you can.
Rating: 4.5 hugs goodbye outta 5.
What did you think? Did you love The Farewell? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!