Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The Farewell is a gentle story dealing with heavy subject matter. A Chinese family gathers for a wedding as an excuse to say goodbye to the matriarch. The catch: she is unaware she is dying and nobody is allowed to tell her. It touches on life, death, cultural differences and family in a way that is thoughtful, meaningful and sometimes even funny. The premise could have lent itself to farce. Instead, writer/director Lulu Wang uses it to set up conversations about whether or not to tell her and the effect her illness, and their deception, has on the other members of the family. It probably does not sound like it since it focuses so much on the idea of death, but this is a sweet movie.
Billi moved to New York from China with her parents when she was a little girl, yet she still feels a strong connection to her grandmother. When she is told her grandmother is dying and that it is a secret, she insists on traveling for the wedding so she can see her one last time.
Most of The Farewell (93 minutes without the end credits) is seen through Billi’s eyes. She is a struggling writer, single and behind on her rent. The refreshing twist is, while she would obviously prefer to make more money, she is happy with who she is. She seems to mostly like her life. The relationship between her and her grandmother is full of love and acceptance, not the culture clash nagging usually found in these stories. Despite the fact that Billi is hiding something major, their scenes together contain a lot of honesty. Though the truth weighs on her as much as it does everyone else, Billi is there to see her, not just to be seen.
Billi is played by rapper/actor Awkwafina who, up to this point, had exclusively appeared in comedies. While she does get some amusing bits here, this is primarily a dramatic role. Even more challenging, it is a dramatic role where her character must suppress her emotions. It never felt like a performance. I know nothing about Awkwafina as a person, but she was very natural here, like Billi is an extension of herself. She is grieving for someone who is still alive and what that loss will mean to her. However, she can also enjoy the moments they have left together. It is a skillful, nuanced portrayal that tells me this is probably only the start of Awkwafina’s acting career.
The biggest conflict is between Billi and her parents, who now identify as Americans, and their relatives who have stayed in Asia. The philosophical differences they have in terms of their views on family are handled carefully and respectfully. Billi thinks her grandmother should know so she can have the chance to live out her remaining days the way she chooses. Her relatives consider this concept to be selfish. They see it as burdening her just so they do not feel guilty. This becomes fascinating because neither side is really wrong. The lie deprives her of the opportunity to say goodbye, but allows her to live in blissful ignorance of what is happening to her. Since nothing can be done to help her anyway, what is the harm?
Lulu Wang has based The Farewell on her experiences with her grandmother’s illness. It should then come as no surprise she has found an approach to this sensitive material that gives equal room to both ideologies (and treats the grandmother as a person as opposed to merely a victim). It is about sadness instead of anger. It does not build so much as continue, like life. All the action goes on inside the characters. It is a family reunion movie about a nice old lady who wants everyone to be happy and a family lying to keep her happy. While death is very important to this story, I came away thinking more about life.
3¾ out of 5
Awkwafina as Billi
Tzi Ma as Haiyan
Diana Lin as Jian
Shuzhen Zhou as Nai Nai
Written and Directed by Lulu Wang