The Farewell Review
A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.
Cast: Awkwafina,Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Director: Lulu Wang
Writer: Lulu Wang
From a young age, most of us have it drilled into us that lying is wrong. We should never deceive others and would always tell the truth. Hell, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” or thou shalt not lie is one of the ten commandments. So, it is interesting that one of the best films of the year explores the morality of a lie and how to cope with sustaining a “good lie”.
Marketed as a movie based on an actual lie, The Farewell tells the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a young woman who moved from China to America with her parents from a young age. Early on, she learns that not only has her grandmother, who she calls Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), been diagnosed with a terminal disease but that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai of her condition. She proceeds to travel to China to attend her cousin’s wedding, which is actually an excuse to get everyone together for one last chance to visit Nai Nai.
It is a funny, random coincidence that I happened to see The Farewell exactly one year after I saw Crazy, Rich Asians in the cinema. It’s difficult not to see the surface level similarities: a film about an Asian-American, going back to Asia and struggling with the traditionalism of the culture (and Awkwafina). But that is pretty much where the similarities stop. While Crazy, Rich Asians almost served as a tourism ad for Singapore with its wealthy cast of characters, The Farewell tells a story of an average Chinese family, one that is not nearly as glamorous. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine that at some point someone pitched a name change to Middle Class Asians. That’s not to say that The Farewell is not well shot, because it is. While it is not as beautiful as Singapore, there are a number of beautiful shots of the city of Changchun, a city that is not clearly visually appealing.
Lulu Wang must be applauded for the film’s perfect tonal balance. The film never gets too dour, which is something that could have easily happened given the film is pretty much about death and how people deal with it. It also never tries to be too funny or play everything for laughs, it hits a perfect balance. The script also gives the practice of not telling relatives their terminal condition a fair go, never just writing it off as an old fashioned practice that has no place in the modern world, but as a moral choice and a practical application of collectivism.
The Farewell is Awkwafina’s first big chance to showcase her dramatic acting muscles and truly knocks it out of the park. Whether she’s speaking in English or Mandarin, she delivers a performance that is absorbing to watch as someone trying to cope with the guilt and internal conflict of the situation. She is at her best when playing against Zhao Shuzhen who is easily the MVP of the film. Nai Nai is such a delightful character with a warmth, humour and charm that makes it hard to watch her family lie to her.
Tzi Ma is good as Billi’s father as a man who is slowly falling into old bad habits of overdrinking and smoking as a coping mechanism to deal with the impending loss of his mother. Diana Lin plays Billi's mother and is more of a rock who doesn’t express her emotions, which allows her to play perfectly against Billi who struggles to keep hers in check.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Chen Han as Hao Hao and Aoi Mizuhara as Aiko, the young couple who are essentially roped into getting married for Nai Nai’s sake, despite only dating for a short period. Hao Hao is incredibly shy while Aoi is actually Japanese and doesn’t speak Mandarin, so I always found it amusing to watch them deal with everything happening, wide eyed and not entirely sure what exactly is going on.
I think you will be hard pressed to find a more moving, charming and heartfelt film this year about lying and death, or just in general. This film manages to take an element that is very specific to a culture and fuse it with a number of universal themes, making it accessible to anyone and everyone. A perfect example of what we can get when we give diverse people an opportunity to tell their stories.