It started out as a personal essay by director Lulu Wang that featured on the American podcast NPR. Until the podcast aired Wang had been struggling to find a producer interested in making her film, but all that was about to change.
The story is one of Wang’s own family. In The Farewell, the character based on her, Billi, is played by Awkwafina.
Billi and her family emigrated from China when she was just six years old, but we meet Billi as a nearly thirty-year-old living with her parents in America.
When Billi’s parents fail terribly at concealing the truth from her, they’re forced to admit that Billi’s grandma “Nai Nai” (played by Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only a few months to live.
If genetics are anything to go by, Billi has next to no chance of keeping this same fact from Nai Nai and accordingly they don’t want Billi seeing or even speaking to her.
But when Billi learns that the whole family is flying to China under the pretence of attending her cousin’s farcical wedding, she heads to China to see Nai Nai one final time.
Sundance award-winner The Farewell is a surprisingly funny film that explores family dynamics and the cultural clash between East and West.
In China, it’s a common practice not to inform a person that they are dying. It’s considered kind to shield them from the anxiety that surrounds death if there is nothing they can do about it and viewed as the duty of the family to carry the burden of that knowledge.
Where in America it’s illegal to keep such private, life-impacting information from the person whose life is ending and it’s seen as deceptive to deny them of living out their last days in the way that they wish.
The Farewell delicately presents both sides and allows the audience to contemplate where they stand on the issue for the duration of the film and beyond. It also includes other Eastern rituals like the long wedding banquet and putting out offerings to the gods, and it does so in humorous ways that keep the film from falling into too serious a place.
Emotionally it will pull every string. The outstanding performances from the whole cast ensure it. The chemistry amongst them and their naturally delivered dialogue are so believable that if someone told you this was a real family, you wouldn’t question it.
Awkwafina, who’s typically relegated to quirky supporting characters gives a natural dramatic and award-worthy performance as the torn young granddaughter caught between two cultures. Zhao and Zhi Ma (who plays Bili’s father) also shine in their roles.
As always, I won’t spoil the ending for you and will only say that it left a bit to be desired, but justifiably so.
Well-paced and witty, soft but stirring, The Farewell is one of those films that will have you reaching out to all the people you don’t speak to as often as you should.
SEE IT if…
You owe your Nana a phone call
Cultural clashes interest you
SKIP IT if…
You avoid subtitles at any cost
You’re already grieving a loss
It gets 3.5 stars out of 5
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