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The Farewell – Movie Review

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The Farewell – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy VVS Films

The feeling of needing to say goodbye to a loved one is universal, especially as earlier generations grow older and we’re not sure how much time they have left. The Farewell looks at the Chinese thought process surrounding this, but director/writer Lulu Wang does it in a way that most people shouldn’t have trouble relating to. Wang allows us to glimpse this family’s life as they cope with an elder member’s cancer diagnosis and the cultural way they go about it. At the centre is a great performance from Awkwafina, who displays the difficult emotions one might expect and showcasing the culture gap with the rest of her clan.

The best scenes in The Farewell involve the small character moments. These details help enrich the characters and bring us into their family unit. Even though the film is about a Chinese-American woman visiting her relatives in China, it’s not focused on sight-seeing. The intent of the story is showing the reconnection and how their cultural differences have an impact on the family’s decision to not reveal the diagnosis to their beloved grandmother. The bond between Billi and her “Nai Nai” is nicely depicted and most people will probably see themselves and their grandparents in how they interact. There is a nice, genuine feeling on-screen and that’s a credit to Wang’s delicate direction.

Awkwafina, who is commonly known for comic supporting turns, is given the chance to play a lead role and show her dramatic chops in The Farewell. She delivers strong work here, carefully navigating the emotions she is required to hide. Through Billi, Wang shows an immigrant fully Americanized and how that has an effect on when she returns to China and faces different cultural ideals. As the grandmother, Shuzhen Zhao portrays her as head-strong and with a mind of her own. She’s feisty and independent and immediately sympathetic. Wang shows a real respect for her, much more than her on-screen family does.

There is a fair amount of humour in The Farewell, some moments of which will likely be recognisable to Chinese viewers more than western audiences. Wang navigates the comedic and dramatic tones nicely through the course of the movie, representing the double lives the family has to present. Wang mostly lets the actors do their thing, allowing scenes to go on as the character have conversations. Whether it’s a dinner discussion about if China or the United States is a better place to raise one’s children or just a simple night time stroll with an uncle, we are in Billi’s shoes during plenty of them. We sense the awkwardness as she is uncertain whether to confront her family for their views or not. The simplicity in the direction works in the film’s favour.

The Farewell is able to serve multiple functions. At its heart is a touching story about the close connection between a young woman and her grandmother. The movie is also about the cultural differences that can emerge among family members living many continents apart. Then, there’s the moral quandary about what is best to do with a respected elderly figure. These are not exclusive to China, but Lulu Wang makes sure to highlight the country’s values and why its citizens feel so strongly about their core beliefs. It’s also wonderful to see Awkwafina show what an incredible talent she is and it will be great to see her spread her wings even more in the future.

Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison