Film Review: The Farewell
One of the year’s best films hits close to home
Director Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature-length film, The Farewell, is one of the year’s best. As a second-generation Chinese American myself, the film hits particularly close to home in a way I never expected to see on the big screen; a transcendent examination of the gap between cultures and generations, The Farewell is a funny and emotionally poignant portrait of a family and the secrets it keeps. Minor spoilers ahead…
In a cultural zeitgeist that is crying out for representation, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a curious piece of filmmaking. If a movie like Crazy Rich Asians is the colorful and boisterous gateway to better Asian representation, then The Farewell is the quiet ideal. A profound meditation on young vs. old and East vs. West, Wang’s second feature-length film looks to bridge a generational and cultural divide not through right and wrong, but through reconciliation and understanding. Awkwafina (Ocean’s Eight, Crazy Rich Asians), in her most subdued role yet, puts forward a powerfully relatable performance, and one that will resonate with all audiences. The film conveys a simple - yet powerful - message: whether we confront death and mortality through pious obfuscation or head-on acceptance, grief and heartbreak are universal, and letting go isn’t always easy.
The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical film adaptation of director Lulu Wang’s personal journey in dealing with her grandmother’s illness - an experience that she recounted on NPR’s This American Life in 2016. In a half-hour segment, Wang narrates her story: a few years ago, her Nai Nai (her father’s mother) had been given a terminal diagnosis of lung cancer. Believing that breaking the news would also break her spirit and hasten the inevitable, the family decided to keep the diagnosis from her. At the same time, they also decided to move up the timetable on her grandson’s wedding, giving the entire family a reason to visit China and say goodbye. The Farewell is a masterful screen translation of this story. Deeply personal and much funnier than one would expect from such a heavy narrative, Wang’s film is clearly a labor of love and an introspective examination of mixed cultural identity. Awkwafina plays Billi, a fictionalized version of the director grappling with a secrecy dictated by tradition, caught between not only two cultures, but two generations. In an interview with Vox, Wang states: “…Yes, the movie’s about identity, but it’s more about what happens when you leave home. What are the values that you bring from the home that you left, and what are the values that you leave behind? What do you adopt? Those are questions about identity that go much, much deeper than the color of your skin and what you look like.”
“While the characters in a film like Crazy Rich Asians look like me, the characters in The Farewell are me. I am Billi. Billi’s parents are my parents. And Billi’s Nai Nai is my Nai Nai.”
While it may be an ineffective way to review a film - through a narrower lens that not all my readers share - I wanted to talk about The Farewell’s personal resonance. As a second-generation Chinese American, Lulu Wang’s film offers a touching verisimilitude that, for me, dwarfs many previous depictions of Asians and Asian Americans in cinema. While the characters in a film like Crazy Rich Asians look like me, the characters in The Farewell are me. I am Billi. Billi’s parents are my parents. And Billi’s Nai Nai is my Nai Nai. From doting grandparents shoveling food onto my plate at crowded family dinners, to my parents explaining the presence of paid grievers at a Chinese gravesite, The Farewell closely mirrors my experience as a child of immigrants. But what resonates with me is more than just the passing resemblance to Billi’s journey; the film delves into a deep and arduous conflict that almost every second-generation American can relate to. In my review for Crazy Rich Asians, I mentioned that Jon M. Chu’s film touched upon an interesting dichotomy, a dichotomy that The Farewell fully addresses with a deft hand. Wang looks past the simplicities of right and wrong, and instead attempts to reconcile the older generation's rigid and oftentimes unreasonable adherence to family values and sacrifice with my own generation's wanton selfishness and entitlement. And there are no easy answers. In one exchange from the film, Billi’s uncle (Jiang Yongbo) offers some heated words when she reaches a breaking point with the family’s big lie: “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” Billi, rather than offering a rebuttal, stands still in quiet contemplation. These are words, in one configuration or another, that every child of Asian immigrants has likely heard, myself included.
The road to The Farewell’s premiere wasn’t exactly a smooth one. Wang encountered resistance every step of the way: some studios wanted the addition of white characters, while others wanted the film to be funnier. In the face of adversity, Wang held her vision steadfast, and instead of delivering a comedy of errors that the film easily could have been, she crafted a measured exploration of cultural and generational identity. Beautifully acted and gorgeously shot by cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, The Farewell is full of authenticity and lived-in details, a cinematic world that only could have come from a very real place. And while Wang has shared an intensely personal story, I suspect that it is a story that much of her audience can relate to, and on a level much deeper than expected. If the strength of a film lies within the lasting effect it has on its viewer, then The Farewell is pretty much perfect, and the best that 2019 has to offer so far.