The Farewell is directed by Lulu Wang. The movie stars Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, and Jiang Yongbo.
Billi is the child of Chinese immigrants, a writer who struggles to make ends meet. She retains a close relationship with her aging grandmother, but learns from her parents her grandmother has received a terminal diagnosis. However, the family opts not to share this news with the ailing grandparent, so as not to break her spirits, much to Billi’s disagreement. The family journeys back to China to say their farewells, under the guise of a fake wedding, at which time Billi begins rediscovering her family and culture. Will the family be able to keep a secret, or will clashing opinions result in the truth being spilled?
Confession time. Until I was invited to this screening, I had no familiarity with this movie whatsoever, or any of the cast outside of Awkwafina. However, the film was being distributed by the usually reliable A24, which was a good sign. As such I went in with no idea of what to expect. Not only did I enjoy myself, but I can honestly say this is one of the best movies of 2019, thanks to brilliant casting, a career-defining performance from Awkwafina, beautiful scenery, relatable themes, and plenty of other elements which come together perfectly.
Let’s start with the single most impressive thing about this movie – Awkwafina. This girl has been showing up in increasing numbers of films in recent years, but she’s usually relegated to the sidelines as a supporting player, and the comic relief. The Farewell, however, is the breakout role she needs, allowing her to show off not only her sense of humor, but also her dramatic side. Furthermore, she’s the main star of the film, something long overdue. She’s perfect in every scene, and anyone who doubts her ability to function as a dramatic actress will change their mind after seeing this film. I don’t care if it’s heresy; Awkwafina deserves a Best Actress nomination for her performance here.
The rest of the cast, admittedly, I was mostly unfamiliar with. The biggest name to international/American audiences will probably be Tzi Ma, who appeared in Rush Hour and The Man in the High Castle, who plays Billi’s father. Zhao Shuzhen stands out as the ailing grandmother, unaware of her condition, but still with an undying optimism and lust for life.
The film’s atmosphere and culture are some of its strongest traits. About a week prior to this film I praised Blinded By the Light for its adherence to showing a more working-class side of England rather than London and its landmarks, and The Farewell largely does the same for China, opting to show us working-class communities and people rather than the skyscrapers of the big cities. Chinese (subtitled in English) is spoken regularly, so at no point does the movie film dumbed down or exposition-heavy for its audience when showing off culture, but at the same time, the movie is enjoyable for general audiences and never feels like it’s talking down to its viewers. Furthermore, the movie is genuinely both funny and heartfelt; it never goes for cheap laughs or an over-the-top tone. Additionally, the movie focuses on a common conundrum of determining whether or not to share news of a terminal diagnosis with loved ones. Not exactly an original theme, but certainly a relatable one, and one handled better here than any any other film I can name.
I think the film will inevitably be compared to Crazy Rich Asians released last year (which coincidentally also featured Awkwafina, albeit in a smaller and quite different part), which also had an all-Asian central cast and many similar cultural things, as well as a combination of comedy and drama. However, with a smaller cast, more consistent tone, and stronger focus on more traditional and working-class people, The Farewell is the stronger film of the two. Hell, the film could just as well have been called “Crazy Poor Asians.”
I can’t quite give the film a perfect score, as much as I’d like to. The movie doesn’t quite reveal enough about the American home life of Billi’s family. Billi is rejected for something called a “fellowship” but not enough information is given on this, nor do we really learn enough about their everyday American life. Likewise, a handful of characters are introduced and largely forgotten, often only serving the purpose of a one-liner. Fortunately, such flaws are rare.
The Farewell is an unexpectedly powerful and entertaining movie, covering tradition, roles, relatable themes, and satisfying its audience with a nice combination of drama and comedy, with an unexpectedly satisfying ending in its final moments. Strongly recommended!
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
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