Directed by: Lulu Wang
Written by: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong, Jian Yongbo, Chen Han
Terminal illnesses change the lives of anyone that has it not only with their physical health but to everyone else around them. A different air surrounds everyone, every moment becomes forced to be savored, and the overall mood shifts to one already in mourning. That might be the norm here in the United States, but as this film shows, Chinese culture has its own way of trying to live with the fact that their loved ones are about to leave this earth.
While trying to make it on her talents in New York, Billi Wang (Awkwafina) learns from her parents that her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhan Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and has about 3 months to live. While Billi wants to see her grandmother to grieve together, she learns that Nai Nai will not be told of the diagnosis, because of a Chinese belief. The belief that family members hide terminal illnesses from their loved ones because the illness doesn’t that kills them, but the fear of knowing does.
Zhao Shuzhen represents the heart and soul of this film. Without her brilliant performance, this film cannot succeed to the level it has. She serves not only as Billi’s grandmother, but also the grandmother of us all. From the way she likes to control everything, but we don’t mind because we love to be taken care of. She always encourages us to eat, even when we say we are not hungry. The unconditional optimism she has for our careers, even when we doubt ourselves at every turn. From warning of the dangers of living in the big city based on things she reads online to the belief that a silly exercise gets rid of toxins and bad luck. Every look she gives to Billie to make fun of her cousin, Hao Hao, was hilarious and the look of sadness, yet strength when saying goodbye broke me. The character of Nai Nai drew such a personal connection to me because of the warmth that Zhao Shuzhen brought to this performance.
Much love also has to go to Awkwafina, who moved quickly in avoiding being pigeonholed in comedy by providing such a great dramatic performance. Her character, Billie, gets stuck in a culture clash of being American and being born in China. Billi serves as the audience’s window into this world. She has to act like everything is okay when she just wants to embrace her grandmother and tell her how much she loves her. Billi needs to hold it in for the sake of the family’s wishes and that restriction eats her alive inside. The moments where she can barely hold it in are truly heartbreaking and this career-best work by Awkwafina proves her incredible. I look forward to how she will continue to evolve as an actor and other performances she can give that really connect with audience members.
The central idea of The Farewell challenges Billi and she battles with it for the entirety of the film. It’s difficult to try and understand the rationalization, but the film does so in a beautifully poetic way. Each character does not have equal screen time to Billi and Nai Nai, but each has their defining moment to display how the circumstances impact them. A perfect depiction of family. No one has the same relationship with their grandmother and each character gets the opportunity to spend a beautiful moment with Nai Nai, as they also have to contain their emotions. Such a special ensemble I could connect with every single one of them.
Despite all of the mourning that occurs, the film also shows the beautiful moments of joy and laughter that happens when a family reunites. After my grandmother’s funeral, my family and I spent the rest of the night laughing and reminiscing about the great moments we shared with her throughout our lives and it provided a brief respite from the pain of losing someone so foundational in our lives. Games are played, karaoke is sung, and strong hugs are shared, which serves as part of the grieving process.
Everything in this film works perfectly well and I cannot think of any misplaced scene throughout its runtime. Incredibly efficient but it makes sure to take its time to tell an authentic story. Even down to the language differences between the family members. Billi, even though she was born in China, coming back after many years, she forgets some of the words because she has not been speaking it as often. It’s so relatable as a child of immigrants. At times, when having a conversation, I need to nudge my mother to ask what a specific word in Spanish means even though I am fluent. Every detail in this film has meaning and that partly comes down to the acting but mostly must be attributed to the work of the director/writer.
Lulu Wang told such a beautifully personal story and I’m so grateful for her for being this vulnerable about her grandmother. Her direction and balance of tone demonstrate tremendous skill, as it gives the audience opportunities to laugh, to cry, and to have hope that life is worth living. She creates a film that can be universally connected to because everyone has someone to look up to and grandmothers usually become one of the most popular examples. The majority of people will live to see the death of their grandparents, just a natural part of life. The death of my grandmother captured a time I will never forget for as long as I live. I will never forget the moment my brother informed me she passed, knowing that it could happen any day. Lulu Wang reminded me of the beauty of the final moments I shared with her.
The Farewell will most likely go down as one of my favorite films ever. At the time of writing this review, it’s the third time I have seen it during its 2019 debutant year and I wanted to start the film over the second it ended. The song covers in this film are also perfect, with the closing credits putting the cherry on top of a film so incredibly special and personal to me. With each subsequent viewing, this film destroys me more and more emotionally. It does not have the large dramatic swells that beg you to cry. The beauty organically comes from the longing looks, the subtle touches, and the love felt through the entirety of the film’s runtime. An incredible achievement and I can guarantee that it will not be long until I experience this beautiful film once again.