Farewell movie Awkwafina review A24

Year: 2019
Director(s): Lulu Wang
Writer(s): Lulu Wang
Region of Origin: US
Rating: PG
Color, 98 mins

Synopsis: 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. (Source)

Death is a silent companion in our lives. Beneath each decision, behind every conversation, it hangs over us. Naturally, no one processes it in the same way. Each of us has our own way of coping. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a deeply personal, profound exploration of this very idea. Based on an actual lie, Wang’s film is a brave, bold look at a choice her family chose to make, and the life-changing affect it’s had on her. What’s more surprising, is how Wang is able to draw complexity from a screwball tone that never diminishes the gravity of what’s at stake. The result is a profound story about the lies we tell ourselves and the truths hidden within. It’s also the year’s best film, and one that I genuinely needed after the passing of my own father. 

In NYC, Billi (Awkwafina) is a 1st gen, artistically inclined immigrant struggling to make ends meet. Her entire world is turned upside down when she finds out that her Nai Nai, or grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), has been diagnosed with an aggressive, fast-acting cancer. Given just a few months to live, culture dictates that everyone be told of Nai Nai’s condition but her. Spread throughout the globe, Nai Nai’s family plots a fake wedding to reunite the family one last time. Billi is distraught at the idea of losing someone very close to her, and ethically troubled by the lie her family’s chosen to uphold. As everyone tries not to reveal the secret the binds them, Billi confronts cultural divides and deeper truths.

With her semi-autobiographical story, Wang has a genuine gift for transforming personal struggle into questions that are nuanced and cathartic. As much as it is about facing death, her film is also a powerful portrait about understanding our roots, how they form the basis of who we are and the emotional burdens we carry for our family. Despite this, the film is constantly disarming. Its humor proves that a lot of what makes us laugh is sometimes what we aren’t ready to process. Wang’s deft control of tone, how each scene delicately crescendos from funny to heartbreaking, is never less than stunning. She’s constantly pulling the rug out from beneath us for a very sharp contrast between eastern and western social norms and traditions. Most importantly, Wang’s film isn’t about justifying or taking sides. Instead, it’s about reconciling and coming to terms with the existential quandaries that we sometimes try to suppress. 

Performance-wise, this is absolutely a film in which no one is out of place. Everyone in the ensemble is indispensable, and Awkwafina’s performance frankly deserves an Oscar (or at least a nod). As Billi, Awkwafina turns what could’ve been just an audience surrogate, into someone who we completely feel and sympathize for. She glues and embodies Wang’s themes together in a way that’s both accessible and heartfelt. Opposite, Shuzhen Zhao’s Nai Nai is gentle and uplifting. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are pitch perfect as Billi’s tormented parents, while Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara inextricably splice pain and comedic relief. Even Jiang Yongbo, as Billi’s uncle gets a few moments to shine, while Hong Lu provides an admirable, silent strength as Nai Nai’s long-suffering sister. Everyone carries their weight, and Wang harnesses sincerity and performances that make the entire film hit hard. 

In the end, there’s so much to say about The Farewell and so much it says. Entire articles can be devoted to Wang’s technical prowess, her use of setting, lighting and hotel rooms to evoke isolation and longing. The way she’s able to capture culture clash from such a universal yet intimate perspective. The poetry that lines each scene and screams to be analyzed. I’ll leave all of this to more qualified writers, though. The most important note to end on, is how almost like no other film, this one struck a chord deep within me. It’s a singular work that articulated things about my heritage and aspects of personal loss that I didn’t even know I’d been avoiding. This film feels nothing less than mandatory. It’s instantly one of the best films to handle what it does with such sensitivity, playfulness and grace.