Movie Review: 'The Farewell' Is Heartfelt, Bold and Beautiful
Awkwafina shines in sad and wonderful 'The Farewell'
Impending death is a daring premise for a movie. It's even more daring when the person who is dying is not aware of their pending demise. The Farewell posits that Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the grandmother of Billi (Awkwafina) has an aggressive form of cancer that leaves her with little time left. Chinese custom insists that Nai Nai's family be told about her diagnosis, but that it be kept from her.
In China, when someone is diagnosed with a deadly disease, the family is informed, and they decide when to tell their loved one what is happening. This is intended as a life-preserving technique. The theory is that if you tell someone they are dying, they will begin to believe it, and their death will come even sooner. It's a deception, unquestionably, but one we are told is normal for the culture, and in line with mental health practices therein.
Billi, having grown up in America, is not familiar with this concept. In America such a deception regarding someone's medical situation borders on illegal. Billi is devastated by the diagnosis. Her Nai Nai has been her closest friend and champion for years. They talk nearly everyday and Billi takes comfort in her reassurance and warm, yet firm advice.
When Billi is told of the deception, she cries foul. Billi's parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), tried not telling her. Then they tried to tell her not to come to China with them as they secretly plan to say goodbye to Nai Nai while keeping up the lie regarding her health. Haiyan and Jian are worried that Billi will break down and tell Nai Nai what is happening, or betray it with her soul shattering sadness.
That doesn't stop Billi from spending her last dime to travel to China to be there for her grandmother. The family is gathering at Nai Nai's for the conveniently-timed wedding of her grandson, Hao Hao (Chien Han). Nai Nai is planning the whole thing herself, and while she's a little surprised that her entire family has come for the wedding, she is excited to see everyone, especially Billi.
That's the tension of The Farewell. Nai Nai, being unaware of her condition, is achingly happy to have her family around, and doesn't suspect why they are there. She senses Billi's sadness, but she can rationalize to a point why she might be sad for reasons that have nothing to do with her. Nai Nai is selflessly oblivious and indeed, it appears to give her strength that a dying person might not otherwise have.
You might assume you know where this story is headed, but I don't think you do. The Farewell is not a movie of well worn tropes or overly familiar story beats. This is a story of love, life, compassion, and soulfulness. It's about love, misguided or otherwise. Misguided depending on your perspective. Strangely, tangentially, I was reminded of the movie Midsommar where the suicide death of a pair of elderly villagers is justified by the remaining townspeople as a duty they do for their community.
It's harsh and frightening, but I can still understand the rationale of Midsommar. In the same way, I completely understand and empathize with The Farewell. There is something to the idea that telling someone that they are dying might lead to an early death. There is something to the notion that the family carries the burden of knowledge of Nai Nai's impending death specifically so that she doesn't have to, as Billie’s Uncle, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) explains to her in one of many very good scenes in The Farewell.
I'm not advocating for not telling someone when they are dying, but I can understand and empathize with the concept, and that is part of what is so unique and fascinating about The Farewell. Director Lulu Wang directly engages this idea, never hides from it, but she also doesn't linger on it in any morbid fashion.
Wang uses these wonderful characters to engage in a conversation about this idea. But even that conversation is not all that The Farewell is. The film has plenty of time for character growth, for humor, for sadness, for a wide range of emotions that feel authentic and deeply felt. That likely comes from the fact that The Farewell is based on the true story of Wang's own grandmother.
Anyone familiar with Awkwafina solely from her appearance in Crazy Rich Asians or from her rap career on YouTube and MTV’s Girl Code will likely be surprised to see her in such a dramatic context as The Farewell. I can put your suspicions to rest, she's amazing. Awkwafina could not be more perfectly cast than she is here in The Farewell. Awkwafina has charisma for days, she's effortlessly funny and unique. The irreverence that she's become known for is the perfect suit of armor for her to shed and surprise you in The Farewell.
Awkwafina is sweet and sad, and deeply sympathetic in The Farewell. And yet, she's also still funny. She still manages to find a couple of laughs. They aren't belly laughs, but they are smartly styled, natural laughs that come from the heart of the character and the unique moment she is in. That type of laugh emerges many times during The Farewell, and leavens the heavier subject matter without upending the drama.
I adore The Farewell. It's a heartfelt, warm, sad, and sweetly funny movie that taps into the themes of culture, identity, life, death, and love with thoughtful compassion. Lulu Wang is a writer-director to watch for in the future, and Awkwafina is a movie star who can apparently do anything if given the opportunity. Based off of what we see in this wonderful movie, The Farewell, the sky's the limit for these amazingly talented women.