The Farewell (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
As of this writing, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is the best film I have seen in 2019. Absolutely sublime in nearly every way.
Attention Oscar voters - Her name is Awkwafina. The category is Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. Nominate her at a minimum please.
Brilliantly, emotionally presented, The Farewell strikes a chord with anyone watching about how much we take for granted in life, and how fragile it all can truly be.
I have very little negative to say about this. Perhaps, it may not move quickly enough for you?
The film is about 60/40 English to Mandarin, so if subtitles are difficult for you - this may prove to be a challenge.
Honestly people. Expand your horizons. See new stories. Find this movie. It is an incredible film. Shame on you for not taking 90 minutes and watching it.
“Based on an actual lie” is an audacious way to begin a story, but the resilient and powerful The Farewell has a purpose unlike few films to come along in recent memory. In walking us through a Chinese-American woman’s reconciliation with her heritage and family, while evaluating her self-esteem and self-worth, a tragic piece of news serves as the backdrop for writer/director Lulu Wang’s beautiful sophomore feature.
Billi (Awkwafina) is around 30 years old, lives in a small apartment in New York City, and is waiting and hoping for a Guggenheim Fellowship to validate her pursuits as a writer. Wrestling with feelings that she is a bit of a disappointment or perhaps a burden, her parents, Haiyan and Jian (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin), greet her one evening with terrible news: The matriarch of the family, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Additionally, and somewhat alarmingly to Billi, every one in the family has decided not to tell her.
Instead, the family is gathering back in China to attend Billi’s cousin Haohao’s (Han Chen) wedding. The event serves as a convenient cover for everyone to visit Nai Nai, though her parents implore Billi to stay home. The excuse given is that Billi will not be able to mask her emotions around Nai Nai and reveal the secret. Of course, a dig at Billi’s financial situation does not go by unmentioned either.
Based on a true story, The Farewell is very upfront with the reality of the lie being told. Naturally, Billi ends up in China, at the frustration of her parents, but to the delight of Nai Nai. Wang’s film glides along each moment - softly, quietly building its foundations and emotions step-by-step and brick-by-brick. The importance of family is never in question, and Nai Nai is tickled to have nearly everyone there for Haohao’s big event.
As Billi is internally conflicted over perpetuating a lie, and increasingly frustrated over the family’s inflexibility on confronting the reality of their news, she has her own truths she is keeping hidden. In fact, secrets exist across the spectrum in The Farewell and as Wang’s film adds more and more density to its domestic framework, the inability to communicate emerges as a barrier helping Billi’s family be whole and complete.
A film like The Farewell could easily serve up platitudes, life lessons, and a sermonizing on how family is everything and the bonds we make with them are the strongest bonds we will ever have, and so on and so on. Wang recognizes that and pivots around every potential trap door her premise encounters, smartly and astutely takes her film to another level by simply showing us truth.
Family relationships can be the most challenging connections we make, and that is okay. Instead of glossing over this fact, Billi confronts her mother in a painfully honest and vulnerable reveal about why coming back to China and seeing Nai Nai is so important to her. Awkwafina’s presence in that scene is a stunning moment, not only by showcasing her immense acting prowess for arguably the first time ever, but by also speaking to everyone in the audience who has ever wished for one more day or just a little more time with a loved one who is no longer with us.
Bittersweet might be an accurate description for the film, but there are moments which simply steal your heart. And the performances are stellar. Shuzhen’s performance, credited as her film debut through IMDb, is a revelation. Her natural presence on screen and galvanizing smile and embracing wit is as genuine a performance as you will see this year. Ma and Lin are wonderful together, and other supporting characters slot in perfectly, presenting a mosaic of a family dynamic anyone can relate to.
It is Awkwafina however who steals the film. In her first leading performance, she is fearless in how she approaches Billi. Quickly pigeonholed as comic relief in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians from 2018, and her stand-up comedy and YouTube days, her dramatic instincts and guarded demeanor fit the film perfectly. Her reactions, curiosities, and tiptoeing through timidity and confidence speaks volumes for a character trying to find her voice within a family dynamic she feels has marginalized her for potentially not meeting expectations.
By the end, Wang creates a place we never want to leave. We feel comfortable with Billi’s family because we can share in their experiences. Wang never sacrifices the identity of her characters for the greater good of a crowd-pleasing story. Her emotions are earned, properly achieved, and she loves these characters, this world, and this story.
After all, as a 2016 episode of NPR podcast “This American Life” reveals, Lulu Wang lived this. The Farewell is her story. And now it’s our story, and easily one of the best films of 2019.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuhzen, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Hong Lu, Yongbo JIang, Gil Perez-Abraham, Ines Laimins.
Director: Lulu Wang
Written by: Lulu Wang
Release Date: July 12, 2019