The Farewell, 2019.
Written and Directed by Lulu Wang.
Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Gil Perez-Abraham, Ines Laimins, Jim Liu, X Mayo, Aoi Mizuhara, and Han Chen.
A Chinese family discovers 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.
Roughly halfway through The Farewell is a scene where westernized Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina, going from a talent I was indifferent towards to someone I will definitely be keeping an eye on throughout her numerous high profile projects in the pipeline) starts wailing away on a piano. Not only does the aggressive slamming on the keys serve as a means to take out frustration over wasted potential of an artistic passion from her childhood, she is venting her bottled up emotions over the morally complex but culturally appropriate decision from her Chinese family to not break the news to her grandmother that she is terminally ill with lung cancer. Her facial expressions, the force of her fingers coming down on the keys, the overwhelming pain ready to burst inside of her…it’s some of the heaviest emotion you will feel in a movie all year. And the hard-cut away from the scene is just as powerful, proving that editing is one of the most important tools in all of filmmaking.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Lulu Wang (pulling from her own experiences and family), The Farewell is the ultimate “fly on the wall” scenario. As previously mentioned, the matriarch of the family is in grave danger and does not have much longer to live, resulting in everyone around her staging a wedding between one of the youngest members (set to wed a girl he has only been dating for a few months) as an excuse for everyone to get together and internally say their goodbyes, including the members scattered across the rest of the globe (which primarily includes America and Japan). The opening title card expresses the events as “based on a real lie”, yielding a deliciously sour laugh.
Billi is Chinese but America has become her home, moving there with her own parents as a child. As such, she’s not only just as conflicted as us on the uneasiness of blatantly lying regarding someone’s physical health, she’s also our conduit to understanding many of the West and East cultural divide subjects that are brought up by various characters. There’s a dinner sequence that just about everyone is present for with topics being attacked left and right, but done with the level of sophistication that you might not even know where you stand or who you agree with; you just feel everything these characters think and believe, and not only that but how important it is to them. Most moviegoers will assuredly come for the premise/lie, but the film successfully transcends that at every turn, and does so without devolving into predictability or sluggish moments.
Shuzhen Zhao also delivers an unreal warm performance as Nai Nai; her every interaction never once feels like a movie character. There’s a reason for this, but it doesn’t take away from how charming she is or make the performance feel fake. She’s also a layered individual, carrying some of the Chinese cultural customs that will be foreign to American audiences, but also guiding Billi to finding her own way within the limited time they have remaining. One of the many relaxing rituals seen throughout the film is a physical exercise meant to expel negative energy, and in addition to being beautifully choreographed, there is also a poetic callback to the sequence that might as well be a superkick to the heart.
The Farewell offers up plenty of awkward situational humor, also weaving it all into the emotional throughlines. Every segment feels designed to either educate, enlighten, or compel viewers into soaking in alternate perspectives. There is no avoiding this, but by the time the goodbyes are invisibly expressed, it’s hard to imagine a dry eye in the house. The final scene itself between Billi and Nai Nai is lyrically devastating and captured brilliantly, so much so it’s like that tired Simpsons meme of the exact second someone’s heart breaks. Except in this scene, the heartbreaking is prolonged so long you can feel every inch crack. And none of it works without Awkwafina; she is absolutely phenomenal and just one of many deserving candidates already for the Best Actress Oscar. In general, The Farewell is a major contender and one of the best films of the year.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com