Review: “The Farewell”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

In America, one’s life is one’s own.  But in China, one’s life is a part of something bigger.  This cultural divide is a major player in “The Farewell,” a comedy/drama written and directed by Lula Wang, based on a story from her own life.  It’s a story that’s simultaneously light and heavy as it ponders the relationship between the individual and the family unit in a heartfelt, funny, and relateable manner.

Awkwafina stars as Billi, a young woman who was born in China but raised in America.  She’s struggling to make ends meet in New York City when she receives some terrible news from her parents (Haiyan and Jian, played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin): her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Her family is returning to China for her cousin’s wedding, which is being hurriedly thrown together to give the family an excuse for a reunion.  But there’s another piece of the news that troubles Billi further—the family is withholding Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her.  This practice is common in Eastern culture, as it allows the family, rather that the individual afflicted, to bear the stress and trauma of the diagnosis, but Billi struggles with the weight of lying to her grandmother.

Billie (Awkwafina) and Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen)

Wang perfectly balances humor and melancholy throughout the film.  The bickering and arguing amongst the family members, which can be funny one minute and dramatic the next, feels very natural, thanks in part to Wang’s screenplay (which delves into the issues it presents without ever forcing them) and in part to the cast.  Awkwafina, who has up to now normally been seen playing more comedic characters, turns in a fine dramatic performance here as Billie struggles to reconcile her American upbringing with her Chinese roots, and the guilt she feels not just from being dishonest to her grandmother, but from staying away from her family for so long. We see that same guilt in Haiyan and his brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) as well.  Haiyan moved to America while Haibin moved to Japan; we’re told this is the first time they’ve all been together in 25 years, and now it’s almost too late.  Shuzhen, meanwhile, steals every scene she’s in.  Despite the drama surrounding her, she’s relentlessly funny and frank, but will also quietly break your heart by the end of the film.

The family gathers for a wedding photo in “The Farewell”

Another aspect of this film that makes it very real is that it doesn’t tie everything up with a bow at the end.  Many issues are left unresolved.  We don’t know if Billi is going to make it as a writer in New York or if her cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) is going to be happy in his marriage to a girl he’s only been dating for three months.  But that’s okay, because while Nai Nai’s words toward the end of the film leave us with a bit of sadness, they also leave us with hope.  This is a portrait of a family unit in transition, trying to figure out how to move on when this important person is no longer in their lives.  It’s beautiful- and, sadly, rare—to see a film with an all-Asian cast confronting the cultural divide between East and West.  It goes beyond the prioritizing of the group over the individual that we see in the family hiding Nai Nai’s illness from her.  A conversation between Jian and one of Billi’s aunts reveals that they are all proud of their Chinese heritage, but they can’t deny despite the issues facing both countries that there are more and better opportunities available in America.  Billi briefly ponders staying in China to be with Nai Nai, but as her mother asks, what would she do?

From start to finish, “The Farewell” is an exceptionally moving and well-made film, with the music and cinematography (which uses muted colors and rarely relies on close-ups, again emphasizing the group over the individual) all working hand-in-hand with the script and cast.  Wang proves to be the next big force in filmmaking, Awkwafina shows that she’s even more talented than we thought, and the audience is treated to a diverse and honest movie that is many steps above the summer’s biggest blockbusters.

Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated PG.

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