Premiering at this year’s Sundance to critical acclaim, The Farewell marks the first family film from A24. Writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feat is “based on an actual lie”. Furthermore, it’s inspired by the director’s real-life grandmother being diagnosed with cancer and not being told about it by any relative. “I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit,” she said in an interview with Variety. “That’s just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures”.
If Crazy Rich Asians made cinema history last year for its depiction of Asian culture in the Hollywood spotlight, The Farewell continues the cycle.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American writer living in NYC when she learns her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. What surprises her is that everybody in her family has kept it a secret (in the Chinese culture, it serves as an act of kindness. Otherwise, it’s bad luck). The only ones who do tell her, however, is Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma). One day, Billi decides to head to Changchun, China, to reunite with her relatives. As an excuse, they decide to have a wedding for cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). While there, Billi struggles to find the difference between Eastern and Western norms.
I appreciate the subtlety and endearment that Wang puts in her wonderful writing and directing. The norms make sense to viewers unfamiliar with Eastern society. Billi has been living in the States for many years. She makes it her mission to know her family morals. As Billi’s mother says early on, “People don’t die of cancer. They die of fear.”
After rising to fame for her roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians as the comic relief, Awkwafina makes her transition to something dramatic. Her performance as Billi is nothing short of Award-worthy. The audience begins to understand where she’s coming from. Whether it’s denying a Guggenheim Fellowship grant, or in dire need of the truth. She does spend time with her relatives at the dinner table filled with tasty-looking dishes. I also love the scenes with her and Nai Nai (played with such warmth and wit by Zhou), which indicates it is not shameful to live a little every day. It’s hard not to crack a smile during those scenes.
Once the climactic wedding sequence comes around, the movie starts to learn the truth about the family’s situation (despite the wacky festivities going on), which is where it really hits home. The Farewell is one of the few movies in 2019 that has affected me on an emotional level with its honest, straightforward, thoughtful outlook of two different cultures. This serves as an early pick for the Best Picture Oscar.