The opening credits for Lulu Wang’s The Farewell act as a sort of symbolism for one the film’s central theme. There isn’t anything extravagant here, just simple, opening credit text. But the text that Wang uses is both in Chinese and English. The texts are incredibly different, showing how two cultures from opposite sides of the world see one specific thing totally different. The Farewell is a film that looks at the difference in cultures, as well as death and family, in one of the year’s best movies.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a struggling Chinese-American woman living in New York. When she finds out that her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), or Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, the entire family decides to go to China to be with her. However, the family has made the decision to not tell Nai Nai she is sick and instead decide to throw an impromptu wedding as an excuse for everyone to be there. But as week goes on, the family tries their best to keep their emotions in tact while Billi struggles with the family’s decision to keep Nai Nai in the dark.
The film is based on writer/director Lulu Wang’s experience with her own grandmother and it feels like Wang is the only person who could have told this story properly. The idea of this movie sounds really sad and most directors might have focused solely on that fact, making the film more melodramatic and depressing. But Wang doesn’t focus on that. She shows us the love and and fun of a family. She’ll write scenes that will make you laugh and then cut you with a sad realization, like when Nai Nai tells Billi how she cannot wait to see Billi get married even though Billi knows she probably won’t. Wang balances the sad with the happy masterfully.
Wang also focuses on the family dynamic, which is at times funny, sad, and awkward, yet always relatable. Wang shows us the arguments, the quieter moments, and the fun times this family has. This is a family that hasn’t been together in a long, long time and Wang makes us feel that, but also shows that no matter how far apart they are, they are always family and they will always be there for each other.
Awkwafina gives one of the best performances of 2019 as Billi. Billi is stuck in the middle of two cultures and must learn to understand why one does it different than the other. Billi and her family left China when she was young, so she was raised mostly on American ideas. But China is different and Billi’s family does things way different than what Billi has grown up with. Whether it’s college, jobs, or how we handle death, we learn that the Chinese do it differently and watching Billi learn about these things and immerse herself in this culture is an eye opener for Billi and for an American viewer. Awkwafina carries this movie, showing a wide range of emotion that she has never shown before. She brings the viewer on the journey and gives us every emotion, even though Billi isn’t supposed show an. Her one-on-one conversations with Zhao, who so effortlessly gives an awards-worthy performance, are the best parts of the film.
I’ve see The Farewell twice now and the second time I saw it with my girlfriend. For a movie with a runtime of just under 100 minutes, my girlfriend, a caucasian woman of Italian descent, was crying for about 75 of those 100 minutes. After the movie was over, I asked if she was okay and she said, with tears rolling down here face, “That’s my family.” That’s the power The Farewell. This is a movie so rooted in Chinese culture and the struggle of a Chinese-American woman, yet it is a movie that will touch everyone. You will laugh, you will cry, and you’ll fall in love. Led by a breakout performance from Awkwafina and beautiful writing and directing by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is one of the very best movies of 2019.
Oh, and hug your grandma.
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