Families are peculiar… we laugh, we fight, we cry across all manner of cultures and ethnicities around the world, and yet there are core universal, familial values that anyone can connect and respond to. Whether it being tied by familial bonds of love or a simple sibling spat, there are values and ideals that exist across multiple cultures, that can connect us universally despite our cultural nuances.
Writer-director Lulu Wang understands these universal values all too well, in her beautiful slice-of-life drama The Farewell, a film based on the directors own life experiences.
The Farewell follows Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina, in a career redefining role), who is confronted with the news that her Nai Nai (paternal grandmother in Mandarin) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, with doctors predicting that Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzen) only has a few months left to live.
As is common in Chinese tradition, Billi’s extended family decides not to disclose the diagnosis to Nai Nai.
The family believes this lie will alleviate the emotional burden of the diagnosis from Nai Nai. This decision comes into conflict with Billi’s Western influenced values, having lived in New York for some time, where Billi believes in telling her Nai Nai the truth. This conflict drives Billi to travel to China, prepared for what may be her final experience with her Nai Nai.
Lulu Wang has crafted a film that feels deeply personal and cathartic, as Wang revisits her own experiences with family in a manner that respects the traditional Chinese values she inherently understands, while embracing the individualistic nature of Western culture. Every moment in The Farewell feels authentically crafted, with Wang bringing to life this wonderfully dysfunctional and endearing family that Billi inhabits. Prior to my viewing of The Farewell I was completely unaware that Chinese families often won’t disclose illnesses to loved ones, and I am thankful to Lulu Wang and the team behind The Farewell for providing that particular insight into Chinese culture, with such care and a natural attention to detail.
While the concept of lying to a loved one about their illness may feel foreign to Western audiences, the experience of saying to goodbye to a loved one is anything but foreign. Wang takes the time to not only reveal Billie’s process of guilt and grief but also, the individual experiences of each of her family members, experiences that are all enhanced by Alex Weston’s moving score. The characters in The Farewell all feel purposely fleshed out and relatable, to the point where some scenarios may call close to home for some viewers.
The Farewell is not all gloom and grief however. Wang’s ability to balance drama with comedy, provides viewers with plenty of levity in-between the film’s more serious moments. The ebb and flow of family drama naturally transitions between scenes of goofing off at a dinner table, to heated debates between East and West values. These family and character-building moments are given the necessary time to develop through primarily naturalistic conversations. A creative decision which many studio films would be ready to cut, out of fear of pacing concerns. However, at 98 minutes, The Farewell feels perfectly paced, especially as it reaches its heartfelt, yet satisfying conclusion.
That all being said, The Farewell wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for Awkwafina. Having appeared in Ocean’s 8 (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018), it felt like the actress-rapper had already been typecast as a new go-to comic relief. While Awkwafina still brings the laughs in numerous scenes, particularly with Zhao Shuzhen’s Nai Nai, what I wasn’t expecting was the incredible depth and emotion that Awkwafina would bring to this role. Her casual persona in the more comedic moments never felt at odds with scenes of Billie breaking down over the guilt her family harbours over the course of the film. These emotional moments are raw and entirely naturalistic, guided carefully by Lulu Wang’s masterful hand, to ensure these performances have the necessary time to embrace the power of a particular scene.
Awkwafina’s performance in The Farewell is a revelation that unravels the actress’s potential to not only lead an entire film, but to provide incredible depth and nuance to a character, that prior roles hadn’t been interested in exploring. Before she appears in the Marvel adventure Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), let The Farewell be the film that opened you up to Awkwafina’s incredible talent.
The Farewell is a love letter to dysfunctional families around the world. Whether or not it be by blood, there’s an undeniable kindred spirit that brings people together in times of need. Lulu Wang understands this notion and embraces people of different ideologies and values coming together for a greater cause – the care of a loved one. This isn’t a film where Vin Diesel harps on about family in his monotone gravel. The Farewell is film that authentically explores the identity of family through the lens of Chinese traditions and experiences. It’s a film that will certainly hold stronger cultural meaning to certain audience members over others. However, The Farewell also wholeheartedly entwines its familial introspection with values that can be felt around the world, and with that in mind The Farewell is film that undoubtedly deserves the love and attention from a universal audience.
Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, X Mayo, Shuzhen Zhao
Writer: Lulu Wang