The Farewell (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Amusing, bittersweet, and insightful in the most surprising ways, “The Farewell” shows rather than tells how a specific Chinese family chooses to take on the challenge of preventing their matriarch from finding out that she is dying of lung cancer and has only a few months to live. Take any one scene from this beautifully layered story and one can tell immediately that it is based upon writer-director Lulu Wang’s personal experiences because there is almost always at least one detail on screen that is honest, painful, funny, and real—often all at once. The storytelling is such a joyous experience because it feels as though the work is free from the shackles of the usual plot contrivances. We simply wish to know these characters as people.
Here is a film that takes on the subject of mortality and defines it through the scope of Chinese culture. It is not necessary that we agree with or support the aforementioned course of action. In fact, it acknowledges that in America, or the West, it is illegal to lie to a person when it comes to his or her medical condition. Required, however, is that we walk away from the story with an understanding, or at the very least an appreciation, of why in China, or in the East, it is, for the most part, an acceptable practice. To reveal this reason would be a disservice to the film, but Wang’s astute screenplay cuts so deeply into one of the main differences between Eastern and Western cultures.
Awkwafina plays Billi Wang, the granddaughter of the matriarch being kept in the shadows regarding her stage four cancer. Having grown up in America, Billi does not think like a traditional Chinese individual—she is capable of it, but she is an American first. Her relatives in China see her as such. It is in her accent when she speaks Mandarin, how she carries herself, her clothes. Perhaps more interestingly, even her own mother and father (Diana Lin, Tzi Ma) consider her to be an American in spirit, not Chinese. It is why they decided that Billi should not come to China for her cousin’s wedding—a ploy for a family gathering so everyone can have a chance to say goodbye to Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen)—in addition to her inability to hide her emotions. Naturally, American Billi chooses to disobey her parents to spend time with her grandmother.
It is a role that requires complex navigation. It isn’t enough to look sad. Awkwafina is seen as a rapper-comedian with a low tone of voice who acts crazy or kooky. She is a delightful surprise here because she embodies a real person who feels torn between her values and her family’s. In nearly every frame she’s in there is conflict behind those eyes and that is what makes the performance thoroughly convincing. In movies like “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” you look at her and you want to laugh. But in here, you look at her and you don’t know whether to give her a smile in the hope that it might uplift her a bit, to cry with her, to urge her to scream and let out her frustrations, or to give her a big hug. It is an inward, committed performance.
The work is interested in Billi’s relationships with those she loves. There are numerous memorable interactions with Nai Nai. She is kind, cute, energetic, generous, and capable of being tough when necessary. Zhao plays Nai Nai with effortless zest. She invites the viewer to look closely at the character and consider this person’s light being taken away by disease.
Another standout involves an exchange between Billi and her mother, how failure to show exaggerated emotions when a loved one dies is frowned upon in Chinese culture. Mrs. Wang despises this expectation because she would rather be honest about what she is feeling or going through. Unlike Billi, Mrs. Wang is not an outwardly emotional person. This exchange is important precisely because it reveals that the mother cares about how others perceive her. In this story, people can be strong and weak at the same time—just like how people are in life.
“The Farewell” is both a story of familial love and a story about the immigrant experience. It is told with elegance and searing honesty and so nearly every moment is earned. By the end, I wished to know more about the characters, particularly Billi and her situation as a young American struggling to make ends meet in NYC. It shows, quite simply, that life goes on.