The Farewell, 2019.
Directed by Lulu Wang.
Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Hanwei, and Li Xiang.
A Chinese family discover their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.
Man, Awkwafina sure is having an amazing career. Last year she broke big with memorable roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, but those were sort of unidimensional characters. With The Farewell, Awkwafina just posed herself as one of the best upcoming actresses of her generation, in a role that’s equal parts charming, funny, and dramatic.
“Based on an actual lie” states the disclaimer at the start of The Farewell. Based on writer/director Lulu Wang’s family story, we follow young Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina). Her family left China when she was very little, but she still has fond memories of China, thanks to a close long-distance relationship with her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). Billi lives in New York struggling to make ends meet as she is unemployed and was rejected for a fellowship. Things get even worse when she discovers Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer – and her family is keeping it a secret from her to follow Chinese tradition. The family then orchestrates a fake wedding as an excuse for them to all get back together one last time to say their farewells.
Of course, the charade doesn’t go as planned, as Billi struggles with hiding her sadness at the prospect of losing her grandmother, and can’t help but let go a sad glance that threatens to give away the truth. She isn’t alone, though, Billi’s father is equally gloomy, which makes for awkward and even funny situations as the family tries their best to hide their sorrow.
Lulu Wang excels at balancing the comedy and the emotion in The Farewell. Her lens doesn’t sink into so much bleakness that you’ll need tissues, even if it does make you cry. Wang also finds the comedy in the tragedy, with great comedic characters and moments that poke fun at traditions, as the family’s matter-of-fact way to dealing with Nai Nai’s death gives plenty of laughs, even if they are charged with melancholy.
The Farewell is also a deep and interesting exploration of Chinese traditions. There’s definitely a western lens through which Wang explores this ideas (through Billie), and Wang struggles with whether or not it is right to lie to Nai Nai, as Billie’s western ideas of individualism clash with the more collective ideas of her Chinese side. Wang doesn’t shy away from both showing and criticizing the more strict and harsh traditions, even if she shows a deep respect and admiration for them.
The ensemble cast is delightful. Zhao Shuzhen will melt your heart as Nai Nai, whose performance will instantly show you why the family is so attached to this sweet woman. Billi’s cousin Haohao (Han Chen) gets the biggest laughs, as he is supposed to get married as an excuse to see Nai Nai, and he shows the awkwardness of the situation. Billi’s father (Tzi Ma) will break your heart through mostly nonverbal communication, yet he expresses as much as a monologue would.
Still, this is without a doubt Awkwafina’s film. She has shown she’s a good actress before, but The Farewell shows she’s able to carry a movie on her shoulders, equally bringing laughs to the audience as she does tears. Don’t sleep on this performance.
The Farewell is an ideal feel-good movie. It is funny without it being distracting, and it will make you cry without the need for tissues. It will warm up your heart and make you want to call your grandparents the moment you leave the theater.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★