Whether it is the news of a loved one’s passing or the news that the passing is closing in faster than expected, we all process the information in different ways. Admittedly, I never thought of it being different for certain cultures, let alone different individuals. Whether it is a custom for Chinese people to not tell a family member they have terminal cancer, I am not sure, but that is surely the case for the family in The Farewell.
Raised almost entirely in the United States, Billi (Awkwafina, the highly affective comic relief sidekick in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians) is still at the stage of young adult life where she is being treated like she is ten years younger than she is. She has a rickety relationship with her mother Jian (Diana Lin), but does still love her as well as her less domineering dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma). Still, even though they live in New York, she still loves to chat with her Grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), who still lives in China.
Billi’s world is thrown a curve when her dad (Nai Nai’s son) informs her that the Grandmother has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and is expected to live only three months at the most. The family decides to go, using her cousin Hao Hao’s (Han Chen) wedding to a Japanese woman (Aoi Mizuhara) as a valid reason to see her one last time, under the strict rule not to let Nai Nai know she will die soon. Despite her parents wanting her to stay, Billi arrives in China to attend.
Despite the obvious dramatic aspects of the film, The Farewell (which starts off by saying it is “based on an actual lie”) has more than enough moments of realism that make it rather comedic. Not laugh out loud comedic (though a moment or two may get you), but more in a subtle way. Consider the wonderful scenes where the family sits down to eat. Regardless of you ethnic background, every family has dynamic encounters (both positive and negative) when at the dinner table. There is laughing, squabbling, screeching, talking with your mouth full. Regardless, love is at the center of it all.
It is always wonderful when a comedic actor is able to show off their dramatic chops (and vice versa for dramatic actors). Here, there result for Awkwafina (who, last I heard, is going to be the seagull Scuttle in the Disney Live action remake of The Little Mermaid) is no different. There are truly times I had to remind myself I was watching the same person who was Peik Lin Goh in Crazy Rich Asians just a year ago. While I doubt it is going to be in the conversation for the award season, it is clearly proof that this is one actress with a wide range in the acting department.
Another standout is the director Lulu Wang (who based much of this off of her own experiences). While this is only her second full length feature since 2014’s Posthumous (unseen by me), the direction she uses here is powerful in how gentle and reserved it is. I was reminded of one of the cinema giants, Yasujiro Ozu, mainly from his masterful work Tokyo Story (1953). That film (which I would endorse highly) was also about parents in their twilight years seeing their children and grandchildren. Even though it was unique to its country of origin, it still spoke to us all on a universal scale. Though Wang is not as subdued as Ozu (who was known for hardly moving his camera, if at all), the technique she uses is rather imposing and proof of a filmmaker worth looking at in the coming years.
Parents, the film is PG, and has nothing here that should worry you as parents. There is little swearing, no sex (though some bare back nudity in one shot), but nothing else. It should be noted, however, that much of the film’s dialogue is in subtitles. If your kids are fine with that, then they can see this film.
One of the aspects of The Farewell that is also universal is how, regardless of the family life we have, we convince ourselves to lie to our loved ones when we think it is for their own good. Whether it be to cushion the blow, save them from details, or just because we don’t want to hurt feelings, we have all done it. When it comes to this film, I will do the opposite, and simply state it is easily one of this year’s best films.