Film critic Calum Cooper reviews Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a hugely funny and effortlessly poignant ode to both family and culture.
The Farewell – ★★★★★
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a plethora of dualities that add up to a glorious and poignant whole. It’s a deeply personal story of family, life and culture. But the tone and style Wang creates flawlessly universalises it. Deep and melancholic, but also warm and hilarious, Wang has taken her experiences and melded them into one of the year’s best films.
The Farewell humorously opens with the line “Based on an actual lie”, although the lie itself bears much weight. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese woman who migrated with her family to America when she was a child. She’s a struggling writer who is distant from her parents, but close with her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), or her Nai Nai, who she speaks with on the phone regularly. Tragedy strikes when Billi learns that her Nai Nai has Stage 4 Cancer, and only months to live. However, the rest of the family have decided not to tell Nai Nai that she’s dying.
This practice is commonplace in China. It’s seen as a way of giving back to the elders, as the family carries the burden of fear for those who have raised them. In keeping with tradition, Billi’s parents and extended family are going to pretend that everything is fine, while also flying back to China. They use a wedding reception for Billi’s cousin as an elaborate cover so everyone can see Nai Nai one last time, a decision Billi is less than comfortable with.
Lulu Wang has made an expertly and sagely constructed ode to both western and eastern values, joining them together with familial sentimentality, resulting in charm and effortless poignancy.
It’s a great idea for a film; made all the more fascinating when you learn how similar Wang’s own experiences were with her own cherished grandmother. Many would look at this situation and say that a dying family member has a right to know. But this is an inherently western concept. Meanwhile, not telling a dying family member is seen as a way of sparing them pain and fear, an ideal which is beholden to eastern values.
This is what makes The Farewell so brilliant. Its central conflict has no right or wrong answer. It’s a clash of cultures, not morals. And Wang maturely adopts an even-handed approach to this clash. We sympathise with Billi’s confusion and sorrow over her family’s decision, as she has adopted a western attitude towards death, but we also understand where her family is coming from when they explain themselves. Each character is embroiled and struggling to cope with this choice in their own ways, all bound together by wanting what is best for the matriarchy of their family. Wang is able to assess all aspects of this argument sincerely, so much so that you find yourself constantly changing your mind on how you would approach a similar dilemma. Yet, she keeps the story grounded for, at its core, it’s simply a tale of an aimless young woman not wanting to say goodbye to her grandmother.
However, Nai Nai is not the only thing that is being bid farewell. Much like Asghar Farhadi’s excellent film A Separation, the title initially appears to be a reference to the central conflict, but goes far deeper than that. The film is naturally character centred, and everyone feels three-dimensional because of this. Each family member is trying to find clarity in their lives one way or another, whether it’s Nai Nai’s sons questioning their decisions to move away from China or Billi being forced to confront her own complacencies in life. The central façade is to bid Nai Nai farewell, but the characters also must bid farewell to past tensions and past mistakes, with Nai Nai’s imminent passing serving as a last chance to reconcile.
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It’s devastating material on its own, but the film has a delightfully light touch over its imbedded melancholy. Its most distinctive feature is its surreal but welcome sense of humour. The conversations characters have are enough to leave you in stitches from their snarky nature, whether subtle or rambunctious. From crazed photoshoots to a particularly funny scene around the grandfather’s grave, the comedy is vast and immediately powerful, leaving you completely invested in the lives of the characters. You feel like you’re sitting at the table with this family, engrossed so much in their disagreements or relationships that you almost forgot why they have all reunited.
All of this is possible thanks to great performances, and magnificent writing and directing from Wang. Awkwafina steps into a dramatic role with this film and embodies it wonderfully, balancing pain, confusion, and nostalgia to the letter. Yet the show-stealer is the charismatic and razor sharp Nai Nai, whose vocal observations and no-nonsense attitude leave you in hysterics, while her deep-rooted love for her family, especially Billi, leaves you on the verge of tears. I would love to see both Awkwafina and Shuzhen get Oscar nominations, for their chemistry together is as tragic as it is heart-warming, captured authentically, and with tenderness, by Wang’s commitment to her own vision. I would rejoice if Wang was rightfully recognised too (for writing and directing). It is her own wit, insight, and gigantic heart, not unlike Nai Nai herself, which has allowed her film to blossom from a good idea into something miraculous.
The Farewell’s plot presents a scenario in which you would either have to laugh or cry to cope. Yet the film makes you do both, sometimes simultaneously. Lulu Wang has made an expertly and sagely constructed ode to both western and eastern values, joining them together with familial sentimentality, resulting in charm and effortless poignancy. From the layered and naturalistic characters, to the sentimental maturity in its conflict, to the genius punchline that the film ends on, it’s my hope that The Farewell goes on to become a staple in Asian cinema. It’s certainly a staple in 2019 cinema.