Alas, Oscar season has finally begun. The Farewell is the newest film distributed by reliable independent film company A24 (Hereditary, Moonlight, Lady Bird, etc.) and it shares a story that–while examining the traditions of foreign cultures–delivers a universal message about family and telling the truth that all will connect with. This is a semi-autobiographical film; it chronicles an experience that director/writer Lulu Wang endured in real life. However, the character the audience is introduced to is named Billi (Awkwafina)–an aspiring writer who is torn up when she finds out her grandmother in China is dying of cancer. She wants to go see her to pay respects, but there’s a catch: the rest of the family has not told “Nai Nai” that she is dying. Billi goes to China anyways even though she must keep this major news a secret, which begins a heartbreaking and hilarious look at how modern culture perceives death and the relationship between family members.
It is evidently a common tradition in Chinese culture to not tell the elderly victim of a serious disease about the whole story, and Billi is the vessel for the audience to relate because she does not agree with the family’s handling of the situation. The Farewell presents a lot of questions and conflicts about its subject matter, but it doesn’t presume to provide the answers for viewers. Wang lets the audience figure out for themselves where they land on the issue, and even though it may seem clear in the beginning what is morally right, by the end the answer is up in the air. All Wang knows is that human connection is a fundamental facet of family and existence, whether or not terminal illness is thrown into the mix.
Wang proves to be an excellent writer/director, striking a great tone with humor that is sly and true to life. The jokes cracked here are those that would strike a chord around any family’s dinner table, and none of them fall flat because the film makes the audience feel like one more member of the family. The Farewell doesn’t have fast and quippy dialogue, nor does it fill every second with some kind of joke, but the humor feels more authentic that way because it comes from a place of personal significance for the writer. Wang also directs the film miraculously given her minimal filmography, using long shots that frame each scene as if the audience is given a window directly into real conversations.
The conversations are bolstered even further by the performances, which don’t even seem like acting for much of the narrative. Awkwafina is fantastic as the lead role, proving that not only is she better than being the comic relief character from Crazy Rich Asians, but that she can hold the dramatic weight of a film on her shoulders with ease. She knows exactly when to play off a scene with comedy and when to pull the audience’s heart strings, making her character a likable one that viewers will have no problem empathizing with. The other shining star is Nai Nai herself, portrayed with heart by Shuzhen Zhao. Zhao seems like a cute grandmother anybody would want to have and one that has only become kinder and more compassionate with age.
Many viewers might complain that the film is slow, and while that is objectively true, the atmosphere would not be the same if the narrative neglected to take its time. By the end of the film viewers will know the personality traits of each immediate family member well because the film gives each character the tools to make an impression. The Farewell excels at introducing its characters without telling the audience what to think of them. Showcasing the personality of characters through their actions is the best way to develop any character, and because of this each character seems well-rounded.
The narrative unfolds with ease and the film ends perfectly, cranking up the emotions to an 11 and providing some well-placed symbolism to highlight the fondness with which Billi and Nai Nai’s relationship thrives. The Farewell is a great sociology lesson into how other cultures operate while at the same time being a heartfelt story that anybody will find themselves in. Even though some might find the pacing grating, it is refreshing to see a film that puts its emphasis on character and message over quick jokes and empty melodrama. Wang’s story is one that deserves to be told and that should give Americans insight into the surprising but logical mentalities that foreign cultures have on fundamental issues.
I give The Farewell an A.