The Farewell (2019). Film review of the dramedy about a dying matriarch

The Farewell (2019) film


image four star rating very good lots to enjoy


After finding out her Grandma Nai Nai ( Shuzhen Zhao) is dying, her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) travels back to China to say goodbye. The real reason for the visit is kept secret and a rushed family wedding is planned, so Nai Nai never learns the truth about her disease.

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Review, by @nadineshambrook

Inspired by director Lulu Wang’s real life lie.

You’d think The Farewell, about a dying grandmother would be merely a tearjerker, but it’s a solid dramedy.

Early on in the film we see Billi, played by Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s 8 and in her first leading role), as a struggling young woman in New York visit her parents to do her washing (she can no longer go to the launderette as she’s avoiding her landlord), when she’s asked by her mum how many dumplings she wants. Billi replies four or five, but that’s not enough according to mum, so Billi says 12, but that’s too many, so mum decides on 10.

From the outset two recurring messages as established: families can be tricky but we love them, and that food + family is the perfect comfort combination.

The rest of the film follows in a similar, joyous vein undercut with melancholy. Billi learns that her Nai Nai is dying and the prognosis is not good – she only a short time left to live. So her family fly out to China as soon as possible to see her under the guise of a family wedding as per Chinese traditions. Billi is told not to go, as she can’t afford it and she will let slip the truth to Nai Nai easily, but Billi goes anyway.

Though the film is about Chinese culture and traditions, the family dynamic and themes explored are universally relatable and depicts Chinese culture in a way that’s accessible to everyone.

Billi moved to America when she was very young, and her parents have American passports, so the lie feels unnatural and absurd. On the other hand being back in China feels good, although it is clearly Billi’s special relationship with her Nai Nai that makes her feel happiest. Like a lot of people today, Billi is living within two cultures and through the film starts to understand what parts of each culture she feels aligns to her heart.

The Farewell, like a lot of films about family, has big, gorgeous set pieces often involving the whole family: Billi, her Nai Nai, father, mother, uncle, auntie, numerous cousins including the groom Hao Hao and his Japanese wife Aiko, great-auntie and Nai Nai’s live-in boyfriend.

Whether they’re all gathered round dinner debating which country is better between America and China, or visiting Nai Nai’s deceased husband’s grave with gifts like cigarettes even though he quit smoking before he passed away, the best scenes are when the Wangs are all together. Which is why The Farewell is so touching; we see a family with lots of differences care deeply about one another, celebrate a rushed wedding just to be with a woman who doesn’t know she is dying.

Despite the straightforward plot (we don’t know a terrible lot about the family before the start of the movie), there are dozens of layers to The Farewell that make it more than just an emotional family picture. There are discussions around immigration, struggles with family politics like mother-in-law pressures, language barriers, questions around what is morally correct, employment hardships and artistic failures. Things that are not confined to Chinese culture, but The Farewell shows us how a complex, Chinese family deals with them.

Come award season, Awkwafina’s name will be mentioned frequently and deservedly so, as the rapper turned actress gives her best performance to date. Awkwafina showcases her natural funniness that we saw in Crazy Rich Asians and proves that she can pull off emotional drama too, as Billi’s fights with her internal conflict of wanting to tell her Nai Nai the truth but not cause a disruption to her family’s plan.

Like Billi, other family members grapple with the truth, with outbursts of tears or drinking and smoking, all the while Nai Nai goes about her regular, matriarchal ways. As it is common in Chinese culture to lie about illnesses like these, it makes you wonder whether Nai Nai deep down knows why her family have reunited for the first time in 25 years. Zhao Shuzhen, a.k.a Nai Nai, is equally as magnificent, stealing every scene she’s in and making it obvious why Nai Nai is so loved.

The Farewell could have done without the very final scene, that is more of a post-film/pre-credit snippet, and the editing and transitions feel out of place at times, but it’s nothing that ruins the film. If there’s no room for acting nominations, I hope the Academy and awarding bodies make space for The Farewell’s screenplay and music. The scene where Uncle Haibin explains desperately why it’s so important to Chinese culture that this lie is kept secret is incredibly touching, whether he’s genuine or not.

The Farewell is a triumph for director Lulu Wang, who has created a tender family drama and melancholic comedy featuring passionate performances and a stand-out script.

For more, visit the official website.

Cast & credits

Director: Lulu Wang. 1hr 40mins/100mins. Big Beach Films/Depth of Field/Kindred Spirit. (PG)

Producers: Anita Gau, Daniele Tate Melia, Andrew Miano, Peter Saraf, Marc Turteltaub, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng.
Writer: Lulu Wang.
Camera: Anna Franquesa Solano.
Music: Alex Weston.
Sets: Yong Ok Lee.

Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, X Mayo, Hong Lu, Hong Lin, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Yang Xuejian, Becca Khalil.


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