By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast)-
Billi Wang (Awkwafina) is in a rut. She’s struggling financially, and has been turned down by the Guggenheim for a fellowship, and has just learned that the one person in her life she feels truly understands her, her Grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), is dying of cancer. Her family has determined that grandmother (or “Nai Nai” as she is affectionately referred), is better off not knowing the truth. And because of this, Billi is told not to visit China with the rest of her family, as she seems uninterested/unable to hold onto the lie. Nevertheless, despite her recent hardships, she ventures to China to join her family and spend some time with Nai Nai, knowing it will probably be the last time.
Seems sad, right?
All of what I mentioned above should have made for a supremely depressing experience. But the biggest surprise with The Farewell is how no matter how dark it gets, it leaves room for hope. Director Lulu Wang brilliantly and subtly directs this film to the nines. She focuses on the human element in a way that is universally relatable, even when focusing on cultural traditions which differ considerably from Western norms. What makes this film work so well is that it strays itself away from feeling like “the other” and instead heaps a lofty focus on universally connecting themes. We all have good reason to fear death, and every culture has its way of addressing the question. Some approach it head-on, others work harder to avoid it. Lulu Wang doesn’t seek to find forgiveness for the family that decides to hide the truth from Nai Nai, but instead she finds ways to empathize with the situation everyone in the family is facing on an individual level.
Poignant, and just a little silly.
Perhaps what is most compelling about the film is the way every character is handled. Lulu Wang finds ways to make every character count, no matter how brief the screen-time or no matter how little dialogue they might have. As an example of this, one of the film’s major plot elements is that the family is holding a wedding specifically as an excuse for Nai Nai to be around so many people without becoming suspicious. The character Hao Hao (Chen Han) is the groom of the wedding, and has maybe three or four lines in the entire film. But his physical performance is truly telling and conveys his emotional experience far more competently than many films would do with pages of lines.
For her part, Awkwafina is nothing short of amazing in handling the mixed emotions of her character’s experience. On one hand, she is desperately trying to make the most of her time with Nai Nai. But she also knows she’s limited in how she can express herself around her, owing to the pressure from her family. Everyone has been in a position where they had to live in two worlds at once, and Awkwafina makes that feeling known powerfully. This is not a film that sticks to stereotypes; everyone in the family is their own person, with their own vices and their own virtues.
In spite of the darkness explored by the movie, the most important aspect of the film is its humor. Without feeling like a “comedy” by convention, the movie has plenty of deep and hearty laughs. Mostly because Lulu Wang knows how to mine laughs from real life awkwardness and situations. Lulu Wang should also be commended for her subtle eye for visuals. Along with Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, she packs the film full of quietly gorgeous moments that perfectly encapsulate the gravity of the moment.
The Farewell is a splendidly life-affirming movie about death. While that sounds like it should be a contradiction in terms, it’s incredibly meaningful to anyone who has gazed upon the risk of oblivion.
The Farewell (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time “Nai Nai” is spoken
Take a Drink: for shots of the city of Changchun
Take a Drink: for crying
Do a Shot: for references to cancer