The Farewell Review: Death is one of the hardest things we as humans have to come to terms with, not just for ourselves but for our loved ones too. The brilliant but terrifying knowledge that we will someday be subject to nothingness or our maker (dependent on your faith) is a constant, so it could make sense why we’d want to protect our greatest and loveliest individuals from this depressing awareness. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell takes the position as to why keeping these things in the dark is fundamentally flawed, not in the style of a finger-wagging blame session, but in an empathetic and complicated fashion.
Awkwafina plays Billi, she’s a Chinese-American student studying in New York; she’s financially struggling but gets emotionally supportive and regular calls from her ‘Nai Nai’ (her grandma, portrayed by Zhao Shuzhen). Back over in China, Little Nai Nai (Nai Nai’s sister) finds out some terrible news about Billi’s nan, and she’s dying. What surprises Billi is that the family has decided not to tell her. A wedding is a planned excuse to go see Nai Nai before her illness takes her, and Billi can’t say a single thing.
The Farewell has one of the most impressive scripts of 2019. What Lulu Wang nails in the dialogue are the dancing dynamics between grief and cultural interpretation. The family explains to Billi that it is the job of the family to carry the emotional burden for the sick instead of having them suffer it.
The Farewell is not an exercise of brute defiance against eastern cultural norms, and it is a look at how family conflicts with the ideas of the individual and how Lulu herself (the real-life subject of this story ‘based on a true lie’) battles with tradition. Finding guidance in a lane of now corrupt memories despite a harrowing situation is deeply upsetting. I found emotional honesty both essential and hard to unpack (but ultimately not ambiguous to the point of nothingness). How do we say goodbye when we don’t want to?
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Awkwafina and her supporting cast are all doing good work here, although Zhao Shuzhen is the true star. I found her warming, lovable, and charismatic in the right spots. What I felt was missing, overall, was a stronger conclusion. The film seems to abruptly end, seemingly 15 minutes before I would’ve estimated it to. There is a strange confirmation of uncertainty which doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience. Still, it does make me wonder if it hindered the core of Billi’s departure from old memories by including a reference to the real story behind The Farewell.
This is a succulently slow, teary-eyed, and beautifully written story of upsetting realness. I implore you to watch this over a bowl of hot soup on a stormy winter evening in comfy clothes – this is comfort cinema with a harsh tang to it.