On paper, The Farewell doesn’t sound like the kind of film that would be expected to have anything kind of mainstream success.
Originally told as a story on This American Life by writer and director Lu Lu Wang it is a film which, as the opening titles inform us is “based on an actual lie”, is spoken largely in Mandarin and tells the story of a Chinese family who come together for a wedding that has been organised as a way for everyone to say goodbye to the Matriarch – known only as ‘Nai Nai’ – who has terminal cancer. Except that she doesn’t know.
The story is told largely from the perspective of Billi, played brilliantly by Awkafina, as she attempts to navigate the complex emotional landscape of saying farewell to a Grandmother whom Billi thinks doesn’t know that she is dying.
As bleak as the set-up may sound; the film manages to be moving, amusing and uplifting, shifting with ease between emotions and carrying the audience along with it every step of the way.
Opening with the revelation that Nai Nai is dying and the family hastily return to China to prepare for the wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao to his girlfriend Aiko – a couple whom the family agrees to say have been together “one year” – for fear of rumours that it is a shotgun wedding. There is initially a reluctance from Billi’s parents that she should travel because they fear that she will be unable to keep the truth from Nai Nai. A tension which is underscored by evidence of her own struggles with money and her attempts to pursue a career as a professional writer; it is through Billi’s experience that the audience is pulled into the story. She serves as the dissenting voice; questioning on repeated occasions (including once to a young Doctor) the morality of not telling Nai Nai the truth, instead referring only to her test results as showing “benign shadows”.
As the film progresses the attempts to hide the truth risk stepping across into the absurd but are cut through with enough of a sense of reality that it never seems implausible. Culminating in a scene where a set of test results must be intercepted before they can be read.
The Farewell is a film that is at its heart about family, using traditional Chinese beliefs about death and dying as its narrative anchor – whilst exploring themes of abandonment, isolation, ambition, love, and loss. The early scenes where the family is together are cut through with a tension that at times becomes almost unbearable; with one character bursting into tears as the family sits and eats in silence at the table. The clear tension between Billi’s father Haiyan and his older brother Haibin – both of whom have left China, to America and Japan respectively and a constant battle between Billi and her parents around what they consider to be ‘the right thing to do’ in any given situation.
Where Crazy Rich Asians took a traditionally Western story and transposed it to an Eastern setting, The Farewell tells a story which feels steeped in a tradition of storytelling that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet was equally relatable at every turn. It is a perfect blend of drama, tragedy and laugh out loud comedy moments. Genuinely heartwarming and at times overwhelming moving it manages to tell its story in a way that is fundamentally human.
Dir: Lu Lu Wang
Scr: Lu Lu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang
Prd: Daniele Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, Anita Gou
DOP: Anna Franquesa Solano
Music: Alex Weston
Country: United States
Run time: 98 minutes
The Farewell is in UK cinemas now