The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell poster.jpgDirector: Lulu Wang
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Rating: PG
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang

During the opening moments, a piece of text centres on the screening, reading the films tagline; "Based on an Actual Lie". Writer and Director Lulu Wang has looked close to home for the inspiration to her next feature film, as the overall premise is directly based of something Wang's family did with their own grandmother. This leaves viewers with a heartfelt story that feels extremely personal and close to Wang's heart, but is also very open that it can resonate with anybody who watches it.

Upon finding out her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been given a terminal diagnosis, Billie (Awkwafina) returns to China to see her. But she struggles with the families decision, to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her own illness, as they've rapidly staged a wedding to cover up the families visit.

Such a premise may easily be dismissed as a novelty, or seem odd to western audiences, so thank goodness these cultural differences are so deftly handled. Lulu Wang takes the time to address how dissimilar America and China can be in handling the same topic, while being respectful of such things. As we're told, there's a saying in China which best sums up the families overall decision. When you have cancer, you die. It's the fear that kills you. The family want to make Nai Nai's last days as comfortable as possible, and whether or not audiences agree with the decision, a strong argument is made to help understand the families choice.

Of the family members, Billie offers the most resistance about the choice. The characters is a natural entry point for western audiences, as she's lived in America for most of her life, and feels more integrated with that culture than than of her ancestral home. She feels at a distance from her cultural home, and isolated in her own way, as she returns to see her extended family whom she hasn't seen in a long while. Up to now, Awkwafina has been known for more comedic roles, with a scene-stealing turn in Crazy Rich Asians being her most notable feature role yet. It's exciting to see her portray a role more rooted in drama, and do such a stellar job to boot. Awkwafina captures the conflicting emotions of Billie, as she's glad to be with her extended family, but struggling to come to terms with her beloved Nai Nai's illness. She serves as a strong emotional core for this film, and if there's any justice, the awards circuit won't forget about her.

It isn't a one woman show, though, as the remaining cast are entirely deserving of such praise. They each depict their characters responses very well, ensuring that each member of the family feels completely real, and believable in their actions and feelings. They all wouldn't work as well without Zhao Shuzhen, whose makes her beloved Nai Nai feel like a vital member of the family, and one gets the feeling each member of the family will be a bit more lost without her in their lives. A special mention is deserved for Aoi Mizuhara, who gives an understated performance as the bride who goes along with everything, despite not understanding the language.

Considering how personal to her the story is, it makes sense that Lulu Wang seems to know how to deliver this film, inside and out. The more emotional moments work because we've gotten invested in the characters and their relationships, and just the right amount of emotion is delivered, without being excessively sweet. It's balanced so skilfully with the more humorous parts, as seen when Billie is learning exercise techniques from her Nai Nai, or the family visit the grave of their grandfather. Even when the scene is intent on delivering the laughs, the beating heart is always evident within, but there's also a complete confidence in just letting the scenes be touching, because the film has more than earned those moments.

A story about the lies we tell to those we love, The Farewell is a masterclass in both emotion and humour.