The Farewell is a comedy-drama film written and directed by Lulu Wang. The film stars Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzen, Lu Hong, and Jiang Yongbo and follows a family who, upon learning their grandmother has only a short while left to live, decide not to tell her and schedule a family gathering before she dies.
The Story/The Direction:
It is a very simple story however that does not make it any less impactful. The film starts off with a title card saying that this is a story based on a true lie. This film was written by Lulu Wang and this is her story. This film shows her experience of traveling to China to say goodbye to her grandmother. However, she cannot say anything about her diagnosis or the true reason why she visits. This is a very true cultural aspect of China and many other parts of the world where relatives decide to withhold the unhappy medical news to ensure that she lives out the rest of her life happily. In this case, the family puts together a wedding to give them a reason to go see her. This entire story feels very personal from start to finish with Wang’s grand-aunt, Hong Lu, play herself in the film. She also uses a lot of the same locations including her grandmother’s home and her grandfather’s grave.
Wang has stated in interviews that this film is an American film that takes place in China. She has said that many studios wanted to change the story to make it more “American,” and give it “more stakes.” This story feels very authentic and even those who are not Chinese can attach themselves to this. The humor that she has is not punchline related or butt jokes. Her jokes are family-oriented. They are humorous situations that even someone outside of the Chinese culture can attach themselves to. When the family visits the gravesite of the grandfather, they bring a lot of items from his past such as cigarettes and put them on his grave. These items may make little sense to an outside viewer but there are reasons for each item. However, the family lights the cigarette after one son tells her mother that the father smoked even though he told her that he stopped. This is a very real situation but it’s fairly comical. A lot of Western audiences who did not know about this practice in Chinese culture follow Billi’s (Awkwafina) journey.
The Acting/The Characters:
Awkwafina has been a scene-stealer in her prior roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians but in those, she was a supporting character and the comic relief. Here she is the star. She really shows her dramatic abilities in this lead role. She has an amazing presence on screen and deserves a nomination. As Billi, she is a young millennial woman who immigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old. The only difference between her and Wang is that Billi moved to New York City vs Wang to Miami. She has grown up with Western ideals and when she is told that she must lie about her grandmother, she cannot believe it. She even states that this would be illegal in the United States. She is even told by a Chinese doctor that this is a normal practice that the physicians are in on. She is every audience member that has not heard of this practice before. This is how Wang analyzes the differences between Eastern and Western cultures and also the generational differences. She shows each side of the debate in a way that is not hostile but rather informational. She immerses her audience that may have them changing their mind about this cultural aspect. As Wang said about what the birds represent, “They are a sign. People are going to believe what they want to believe, whether it was my uncle with his probiotics, or family friends with prayer, or the [protective power of the] lie. If you are a spiritual person and you look for things, you may see signs. But if you don’t believe in that, then you’ll just go, “Oh, it’s just a bird.” So that was my way of reemphasizing this idea of perspective, that things are based on how you see them.”
Through Billi, Wang also analyzes the idea of “Americanized” Asians vs “Homeland” Asians though specifically here, Chinese. There can be some hostility between these two populations but Wang is able to compare the two cultures and show how both have benefits and that they are still similar. This is particularly looked in a scene at the dinner table. The family realizes that it has been over 25 years since all of them have been together because they are separated from all over the world. All of the people sitting around the table are Chinese but they all have different meanings of the word. One person looks at it as an ethnicity where another looks at it as citizenship. There is not a right or wrong answer but rather shows the many sides of being Chinese but being Asian as well. Billi knows some of her native Mandarin but it is definitely imperfect. This becomes a point that is emphasized to her multiple times over the course of the film however the film still shows that she is as Chinese as her other family members. She lies about other parts of her life to the family as they are lying to her grandmother. She grows over the course of the film and learns to express her true feelings and lie like her family. Any viewer can see the loving relationship between Billi and her Nai Nai played wonderfully by Zhao.
If anyone has had an independent grandmother, they will see her in this woman. Even though the audience knows she's going to pass soon, she is still working hard. She is candid about her feelings which is opposite of what the rest of the family is doing. However, as with her family, her statements are with love. Zhao and Awkwafina have great chemistry and their relationship will slowly pull at the audience's hearts by the film’s finale.
This film has no flaws. Each scene is done in a way that is imperative to the story and Billi’s journey. If there is a scene that may be an audience member don’t understand, it may be because it's a bit of Chinese or Asian culture that they don’t understand. Similar to Billi’s experience with the lie, keep an open mind and one might learn something that they did not know before. Wang is able to tell this story beautifully and it is recommended to anyone to see this film again and again.
Rating: 5.0/5.0 bowties.
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