In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell a family prepares to say goodbye to their wonderful matriarch who’s been diagnosed with lung cancer, a little detail the family intends to keep unbeknownst to her. They organize a spontaneous wedding in the family so they can have a reason to gather once more to properly spend their last moments with Nai Nai, who seems to relish in the festivities from start to finish. Wang’s story is personal as it’s “based on an actual lie,” per the film’s opening note. It’s a story about family, passed on traditions, the best parts of celebration, and the beautiful passage of time that happens when you’re finding the strength in you to say goodbye. It gently weaves in moments of unwavered familial heartache and then whisks us away in precious joys. Not only does it house a tremendous turn of character for Awkwafina, but it finds the universal in the deeply personal parts of filmmaking.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a young New Yorker, for better or worse, accustomed to American life. She has extended family in China and keeps regular contact with them, more notably her sweet grandma, her Nai Nai. As her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) tell her of Nai Nai’s advanced lung cancer, Billi is overcome, confused, and eager as she learns that her family have decided to also keep this information tucked away from Nai Nai. She learns it’s commonplace of her Chinese tradition to keep these family member prognoses secret from the ill stricken one, so as to spare them the worry before their time comes. Although it’s Nai Nai’s illness, it is the family’s duty to bear the burden of the sickness. It’s comparable to the white lies we get away with to keep a loved one at bay from sadness, so that they can live on a while longer only experiencing the fullest of love and comfort before the time’s up.
Billi’s relationship with her Nai Nai is the sweet center of the film. Her grandmother is a radiant, affectionate, and supportive woman who feels Billi can sometimes be too hard on herself. Billi’s distraught about what her future back in the States could hold, coasting by as she’s just been rejected a fellowship opportunity and even going so far as to rack up credit charges for a hopeful extended stay in China to be near Nai Nai. This considered, she arrives at her family’s home country against the plea of her parents who persistently remind her how transparent her sad emotions will be when she sees Nai Nai face to face.
Billi wears her heart on her sleeve and this overwhelming reminder that her grandmother may not be around to see her milestone successes, or that she may not have asked her all the questions she’s had, may be some of the most heartrending unspoken moments of the film. And in these painfully real scenes, Awkwafina taps into a dramatic depth some may have thought didn’t exist. She gives one of the year’s most fleshed-out performances and sees it all the way through. The supporting ensemble of characters in the family are given excellent screen time that ranges from comedic relief to unveiling scenes of family history and its importance to the structure of this multifaceted bunch
Snagged up by A24 to be released in the U.S., The Farewell does so much to beautifully commemorate the little moments between generations and customs, old and new alike. It does so much to tell the personal story of our writer-director’s profound relationship with her Nai Nai (who’s played by the ever charismatic Chinese soap veteran Shuzhen Zhou). Wang never fills the sentimental with tired exhaustion. Her story being the heart of the film never once feels bloated of melodrama, self-righteousness, or overplayed comedic beats. Instead, she carefully crafts a story from experience and love and brings the rawness with its human delicacies. It’s the little, funny moments shared in the family that peak through. It’s your grandma commenting on how whether or not your butt has changed since she last saw you. It’s the hilarious, uncalled for spontaneities of family parties. It’s also the aching feeling that you’ll never get another moment quite like the now. In this regard, Wang’s thoughtful character insights are beacons in her storytelling.
Coming off last year’s refreshing performance in Crazy Rich Asians, there’s a magnificent air to the way Awkwafina transforms into a character that demands grief, doubt, and wonder simultaneously. Wang’s script gifts us a staggering dramatic turn out of Awkwafina, one that remains among the best performances out of Sundance. She provides some of that charming humor we’ve grown to love from her, but it is also accompanied by the likes of cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen), whose cringe, rushed relationship is the wedding in planning. It’s not just outstanding acting onscreen. The cool-toned cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano lens itself to a mesmerizing, intimate score by Alex Weston. Wang’s film does wonders as it all comes together in genuine fruition.
Although its highest strengths include remarkable dramatic acting embedded by an equally poignant original script, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a touching film that carries heart and love throughout its narrative. You’ll feel the punch in Billi’s eyes as her Nai Nai expresses the impatience of waiting to plan her granddaughter’s wedding. But Billi can’t tell her about her hurt because she’s made a promise to her family and to their customs, a notion that even the film takes time to dissect. At Billi’s most vulnerable, she also discovers more about her family and the story gives much weight to the characters who exist around her. With all that’s happening, Billi begins to rekindle and understand the culture her family was born into. It’s as much a story about our family histories and intricacies as it is the gift of life and connection. Lulu Wang has a beautiful film on her hands and the world is going to love it endlessly.
Directed by: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo