The Farewell Review: Awkwafina is pure magic in this personal story of culture, death, and tough dilemmas
Writer/director Lulu Wang’s newest film, The Farewell, attempts to solve one of the most complex and confounding things people struggle with every day: How do you deliver bad news? Do you just bluntly say it? Do you not tell anyone so that no one’s feelings are hurt? Do you wait for the right time to come, even though it never seems to come? If breaking up is hard to do, then delivering bad news is pretty much impossible. This is the dilemma Lulu Wang tackles with The Farewell and puts a cultural spin on the issue by focusing on the difference between US and Chinese cultural mindsets. The result is a film full of humbling humor and authentic debate between Western and Eastern cultures.
Based on an actual lie, which I’ll always find charming about the film, the film follows Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese woman who has lived in America with her parents since she was a child. Although she has returned to China in quite some time, Billi must return in order to attend a wedding that is just a front for everyone to visit her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), as she is dying from cancer. As a part of Chinese tradition, the family has decided to omit the full details of Nai Nai’s condition to her and attempt to just make her happy and distract her with the wedding. Billie struggles with whether it’s right to tell her or not and it leads to the family constantly wrestling their cultural ideologies and debating what’s more important in times of death.
Where Wang is at her best in The Farewell is in creating authentic and fun family relationships that viewers can connect to. It’s not too much of a surprise considering that Wang has definitely based the film’s central family on her own, but it’s what makes the family come off realistically. They joke about one another at the dinner table, they argue at times about each other’s comments, and they even put things aside for the benefit of Nai Nai staying happy. Even Nai Nai, herself, strongly reminded me of my grandma and think many viewers will definitely feel the same way. She’s strong-willed, always wants to be involved, and stern at times, but always has caring intentions. Honestly, I think regardless of whatever culture viewers are, they will find some similarities between the film’s central family and their own and it makes The Farewell such a comforting and engaging watch.
Not to mention, the film has some hilarious moments that only strengthens the film authentic relationships. Billi is constantly made fun of for not being as good at speaking Mandarin Chinese as everyone else, there’re sequences that repeat actions and phrases in a funny way and seeing Billi and Nai Nai do morning stretching routines will instantly bring a smile to your face. The humor is much more natural with The Farewell and it creates a comforting feeling that viewers will relate to more. It’s honestly great to see a film talk about grief and death be so humorous at the same time and the ending is surprising and uplifting.
The performances are also spectacular with Awkwafina making Billi the emotional tentpole of the film. So far in her career, Awkwafina has just shown herself to be a solid comedic relief, but with The Farewell, she showcases that she’s so much more and portrays the internal conflict that Billi is having over what’s best for Nai Nai in a very touching way. Those that have been fans of her thus far will be absolutely blown away by the amount of genuine heart, complexity, and care she brings to this film and her performance definitely puts her in the conversation for awards. Zhao also puts in a stellar performance as Nai Nai and I couldn’t help but grow a strong care for her with each scene she’s in. As said before, she’ll easily remind viewers of their own grandmother and the amount of compassion she brings with each member of the family had me getting chocked up in the film’s more somber moments. Really, the connection between Billi and Nai Nai is the highlight of the film and makes the struggle that Billi faces much more understandable.
While The Farewell is, at its core, about the struggle of how, when, and if to deliver bad news, there’s a great debate between Western and Eastern values towards death. There’s a lot of great conversations between Billi and the rest of the family that talks about preserving life and how Chinese families carry the burden of their relative’s illness or impending death rather than take the entire burden themselves. There’s also a great conversation between Billi and her mother (Diana Lin) about showing emotion in times of death and how it’s different between cultures. Billi’s mother describes how it is expected to show emotion in Chinese culture and that there’re even professional criers hired for funerals so that the deceased are respected, which I found to be both funny and intriguing.
There’s even some debate at dinner about whether it was a good thing that most of the family moved out of China and what the cost of it was. As said before, everyone constantly mocks Billi and her cousin for not being able to speak Mandarin as well and there’s even some dialogue in a dinner scene about the advantages and disadvantages they’ve faced for either leaving or staying in China. Billi’s father (Tzi Ma) and uncle feel bad about leaving their mother, Nai Nai doesn’t understand English and can be a little frustrated when Billi and her family are speaking English, and even Billi’s mother raises an interesting point about how Nai Nai doesn’t feel in control at their American home because it is not her house and it frustrates her. Even his cousin’s fiancé, who is Japanese, is also out of the loop on Chinese culture and I really love how Wang includes this perspective. Honestly, there’s a lot you think about with what The Farewell is saying about culture and I think that it can actually make a re-watch worthwhile.
Wang’s style of blending the West and the East is also top-notch. She uses similar shots of New York City and China to have viewers connect to Billi’s point of view and always keeps the camera strongly focused on the family to make the film much more personal. Wang even utilizes the subtitles to create some interesting moments that are pretty funny. A lot of times during sequences that repeat dialogue or action, like the discussion between Billi and her uncle and the family visiting their grandfather’s grave, Wang will cut the subtitles because the dialogue or actions have been done so much that viewers will be still aware of what they’re saying or doing. I love this choice because it’s more engaging for viewers and, even in my audience, no one got lost in translation.
The Farewell is a personal and emotional story that’s a perfect showing Wang, Awkwafina, and the rest of cast’s talent and just a perfect film in general. It’s thought-provoking, genuinely hilarious at times, and a win for those looking for more Asian representation and perspective in film. Hopefully, The Farewell can stay in the conversation for awards later in the year, because it could easily be a top contender.