By: Jessica Goddard
A poignant and sincere exploration of family, loyalty, and cultural divide, The Farewell turns its writer-director’s quirky anecdote into effective drama.
We start in New York with Billi (Awkwafina) talking on the phone to her grandmother Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in China. It’s obvious the two are close, even though Billi’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was young. A struggling artist in the big city, Billi retreats to her parents’ house and finds out that Nai-Nai has been diagnosed with lung cancer and isn’t expected to live much longer. In line with the Chinese approach to terminal illness, the family has agreed to keep the diagnosis from Nai-Nai so she’s able to enjoy the remainder of her life without fear.
Under the ruse of Billi’s cousin’s (fake) wedding, Billi’s parents and relatives reunite with Nai-Nai in Changchun so that all may have an opportunity to informally say goodbye. Billi’s not invited – she’s too emotional and everyone fears she won’t be able to disguise her grief. But after giving it some thought, she books a flight anyway and crashes the “wedding” celebrations so she too can see her grandmother one more time. Based on filmmaker Lulu Wang’s actual experience with her own grandmother’s medical prognosis, the concept started as a 2016 story for NPR’s This American Life.
The Farewell works off a great script, moving from the culturally specific to the assumably universal message for long distance families. The dialogue skilfully layers tension and unconditional love to create an impressively realistic family dynamic, which also helps us get to know each character at a healthy pace. Awkwafina is believably somber as the conflicted Billi, uncomfortable with the lie but unwilling to act against her family’s consensus. Fittingly, where there are opportunities for humour, Awkwafina shines; rounding out a character that spends much of the movie brooding (understandably).
Despite English subtitles, nothing seems lost in translation – the film is easy to follow, with natural exposition here and there. The Farewell is a moving, thought-provoking film that will make you want to call up your oldest relative. And really, you should.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod