Starring Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Han Chen
Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” was one of the most buzzed-about films at Sundance 2019 and that it’s no surprise it’s already breaking box office records in limited release. The film’s ingenious tagline, “Based on an actual lie” originated from a story aired on Guy Raz’s NPR show “This American Life.” Wang’s original screenplay, a likely Oscar contender, is a charming blend of lite comedy and cultural enlightenment. Most of the performances take a backseat to the writing and the originality of the story, except for Shuzhen Zhao’s scene stealing, supporting turn as Nai Nai (Mandarin for Grandma). Comedian Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is excellent in her first dramatic turn, the story is told from her point of view. Wang’s exploration of differences between both the culture and customs of China and the West is fascinating and often hilarious.
Billi (Awkwafina) and her parents moved to New York some years ago to pursue the American Dream. Almost daily, Billi phones Nai Nai (Zhao) back in China who fusses at the “stupid child” about wearing a hat outdoors, eating more and finding that special someone. It’s these calls that give Billi the strength to keep going each day. Nai Nai doctor’s discover that she has Stage 4 lung cancer. However, its Chinese custom not to tell the afflicted when they are terminally ill, so she isn’t told. A decision Nai Nai’s American son Haiyan (Tzi Ma) is wrestling with. Billi’s mother Jian (Lin) tells her daughter that Chinese people have a saying; “When people get cancer, they die.” Billi insists on going to China to be apart of a fake wedding the family has concocted as an excuse to get together for what might be Nai Nai’s final weeks. No one trusts Billi to keep the secret, but each member of the family struggles with their conscience about withholding the information.
Newcomer Zhao delivers an Oscar worthy clip every time she is on screen.
“The Farewell” might be a story about Chinese customs, but Wang has figured out a way to make this story universal. You can sit anyone in front of this movie and they will likely find something relevant to their own family. Comedy might be the inviting method in which most viewers access the material, and it’s genuinely funny as we chuckle at the various characters. The tears come almost unexpectedly, it’s a somber film for sure, but the way modern Chinese society deals with illness and preparing for death is very different from any American film on the same subject you are likely to see. Awkwafina’s subtle performance might not break into the best actress race but Wang is smart using Billi as the audience's vessel into the story while keeping the focus on the event, rather than the individual. However, it is Shuzhen Zhou who delivers an Oscar-worthy clip every time she is on screen.
You could make a case for “The Farewell” being the most enjoyable, well-liked and agreeable film of 2019. It’s the type of movie anyone and everyone can find something to enjoy. It’s rare when a movie lives up to everything the trailer advertises. It is life-affirming in the way it reminds us of the importance of family and caring for each other. It’s challenging and self-reflective, as you ponder whether or not you would want to know of if you were terminally ill. There is a lot to learn and appreciate in a film that starts out as something simple and funny. This is the type of film that reminds us the true value of cinema and storytelling that often gets so lost among the big-budget action movies that dominate our screens. There is so much to learn about society and ourselves if we choose the right content and “The Farewell” checks every box.
The Farewell is a rare film that can entertain, enlighten and reaffirm our fragile humanity.