The Farewell, 2019.
Directed by Lulu Wang.
Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Diana Lin, Tzi Ma, Jiang Yongbo, Lu Hong, Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara.
A Chinese family reunite for a wedding, but almost everyone involved really knows that it’s a chance to say goodbye to their beloved matriarch, from whom they are concealing her terminal cancer diagnosis.
Cultural specificity is a tricky thing to get right on the big screen. If it’s too general, it loses the ring of truth, but too much detail might alienate audiences outside of the group or culture being depicted. That balance is perfectly struck by The Farewell, which channels a strange element of Chinese family dynamics through the prism of a very human, emotional story that will work for audiences all over the world. It’s a tale that’s both specific and universal, which is no mean feat.
Awkwafina swaps her current run of under-appreciated comedy supporting actor roles for a meaty, dramatic leading part as Billi. She lives in New York City, having emigrated from China with her parents when she was just a child. Despite the distance, she has maintained a close relationship with her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) – the family matriarch who almost everybody calls Nai Nai, the Chinese term for grandma. Billi learns that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, but the family is keeping the news from her. They have arranged for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to marry his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) as an excuse for the family to get together and say their goodbyes.
The dynamic of this family is fascinating, with the concealment of the illness framed as a Chinese tradition. This rubs up against the increasingly globalised status of the family, which has scattered all over the world, with Awkwafina’s immediate family living in the States, while Hao Hao and his family are based in Japan. This creates a tense atmosphere and leads to difficult, knotty discussions about the moral quandaries at play.
Awkwafina’s Billi sits at the centre of this difficulty, initially not invited to the wedding for fear of her giving the game away. This is a real coming out party for her as a dramatic actor, but it’s also crucially a film that allows her to play to her comedic strengths. The Farewell is an elegant construction in terms of tone, dealing out excruciating comedy awkwardness as well as genuine emotional beats. Han and Mizuhara are particularly excellent in the world’s most uncomfortable pre-wedding photoshoot, with the rest of the family seemingly oblivious to their discomfort.
The relationship between Awkwafina and Shuzhen’s Nai Nai is touching and expertly drawn. Anyone who’s particularly close to a family member will recognise the bond, with Nai Nai referring to Billi affectionately as “stupid child” and teasing her about the fact she’s not yet found someone to marry. It’s this relationship that’s at the heart of the movie, and it feels constantly organic, even in the face of some material around it that could easily slip into melodrama.
Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai is her key remaining link to her Chinese homeland and, throughout the film, director Lulu Wang focuses heavily on how her idealised view of China is taken down. Early on, we see Billi stare forlornly at some new high rise buildings extending seemingly endlessly into the sky and there’s discussion later on about how Nai Nai’s old neighbourhood doesn’t even exist any more. Meanwhile, a supposedly swanky new hotel has a broken lift and is almost entirely filled with old men and the sex workers they have hired.
This is a movie about identity as much as it is about individuals. Billi is struggling with her place in the world and feels as if the loss of Nai Nai will leave her unmoored from her heritage. The Farewell impressively tells this complex, rich story in the midst of a consistently entertaining family drama that is culturally perceptive while maintaining a broad enough appeal that it stands as an undeniable, crowd-pleasing hit.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.