Friday Film Review - "The Farewell"

Aug 23, 2019

A standout at Sundance 2019, "The Farewell" is a dramedy that’s based on an actual lie.

Family dynamics and the dichotomy of Asian-American culture are at the centerpiece of filmmaker Lulu Wang’s comedy/drama “The Farewell”. The film, which premiered this year at Sundance and was based on as Wang calls it “an actual lie” was really a true story that originally aired on This American Life.

The Farewell follows Billi - played by the rapper, now rising film star Awkwafina – as she comes to terms with the imminent loss of her grandmother.  Billi was born in China and moved to the States with her parents as a young child, but always maintained a special bond with her paternal grandmother Nai Nai (played by Shuzhen Zhou).

As a young adult now living in Brooklyn, Billi is struggling to find her way and purpose in life, but frequent calls with Nai Nai back in China offer Billi comfort as she navigates adulthood. 

Billi is close with her parents - Haiyan (played by Tzi Ma) and Jian (played by Diana Lin) - who live in the nearby suburbs. Billi learns when visiting for dinner one evening that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with lung cancer and only has a few months to live.

The extended family collectively decides not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis to let her live out the remainder of her life in peace, a common practice in Chinese culture. Billi struggles with her own emotional burden to keep the secret and the ethics of her family’s decision.

She soon joins her parents for a trip back to China for her cousin’s wedding, which has been staged as an excuse to allow the family to gather and spend time with Nai Nai during her last days.

Nai Nai is as feisty and fun as ever and doesn’t seem to question the hasty gathering. She jumps right into wedding planning mode and especially enjoys her time with Billi. It’s clear the two are cut from the same cloth and have a strong and loving bond.

While the film’s premise sounds grim, it’s the lighthearted dynamics between family members and the focus on celebration in Chinese culture that adds levity to the story. Wang’s direction of a strong cast, led by an impressive performance from Awkwafina, helps archive this bittersweet balance.

Filmed in Wang’s hometown of Changchun, China, “The Farewell” offers an authentic immersion in Chinese culture – from food, to wedding customs, to celebrations honoring lost loved ones. Running 98 minutes and rated PG (for thematic material, brief language and some smoking), the dialogue is mostly in Mandarin, with English subtitles. The breakout Sundance favorite is a film worth watching.