One of the most exciting moments a critic – and even a general audience member – can have is when a new talent bursts onto the scene. While writer/director Lulu Wang has made a few smaller features before, The Farewell is the kind of breakout people talk about for years to come, like Sofia Coppola on The Virgin Suicides, Damien Chazelle on Whiplash, or Spike Lee on Do The Right Thing. The Farewell is the kind of personal, loving, perfect film that audiences enjoy loving, where the personal and the familial and the cultural all blend together to tell a sweet, funny, cathartic, and uplifting story about life, death, change, and love. This is one of the best films of the year.
Billed as “Based On An Actual Lie,” Billi (Awkwafina) has reached a crossroads in her life. Having just been rejected from a writing fellowship that she desperately needed, and struggling to make ends meet, she finds comfort in weekly phone calls with her beloved grandmother – and family matriarch – Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), whom Billi has only seen on occasion since moving from China at the age of four. However, things change when Billi’s parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), have some tragic, confusing news: Nai Nai has contracted stage four cancer, and has but a few months to live. What’s more, the family has decided it would be best to not tell her, letting her live out her final days in peace (it is not required to tell patients their diagnoses in China). Under the pretense of a cousin’s rushed wedding, the family embarks to the Old Country to pay their final respects to the woman who has showered them all with love. And so begins a journey of self-discovery for Billi, as she grapples with her struggles in adulthood, her sense of identity balancing two cultures, and the sense of morality surrounding what she and her family are doing to Nai Nai.
Perhaps it’s because The Farewell is based on Wang’s real family and a true experience in their lives, but this may be the most realistic movie family ever put on film. Every detail seems resonant, honest, funny, and true-to-life, carefully written and crafted by a true artist. They laugh and sing together, they secretly cry together, they bicker together, and so on, all while grandma Nai Nai rushes around trying to comfort and care for all the family members she so dearly loves. It’s a dynamic that rings true across boundaries, backgrounds, and religions, and I’ve never seen it so articulated on the big screen. One of my favorite moments in the film involves an argument between the family – Billi’s family lives in America, her uncle Haibin lives in Japan, and Nai Nai still lives comfortably in China. The family begins to argue over which country is better, with small points surrounding the Japanese work experience, the American experience as a whole, Haibin and his wife sending their son to college in America, and so on. Meanwhile, Nai Nai is horrified at the argument, both because she doesn’t like hearing her family bicker and because she cannot fathom anyone speaking ill of their home country, China. While the locations may vary, and the content may be slightly different (although Billi, a recent college grad, may not have to change a word), this could be the exact same debate playing out in households around the world right now – and especially in many American homes, where the left and right will argue over Thanksgiving dinner while the grandmother will try to ease the tension and gently remind everyone that “This is the greatest country on Earth, and it was a different time back then.” Meanwhile, Wang smartly introduces us to each family member – as well as establishes the deep-running issues, qualms, and struggles that everyone feels surrounding the death of a matriarch – through one-on-one interactions with Billi. By letting Billi walk home with her uncle, or make dinner with her mom and aunt, or go to the spa with her father, or prepare the wedding with Nai Nai, we can get a glimpse into each character’s past, their relationships to other characters, the arguments of the past, and their hopes for the future. We learn that the brothers have struggled with alcohol as a coping mechanism in the past, which becomes more prevalent as the film goes on and the two men grow sadder. We learn that Billi’s mother and father have been having issues, largely stemming from Haiyin’s struggles with alcohol. We learn how much Nai Nai cares for Billi, especially in somber quotes like, “When you get married, I’m going to throw you a bigger banquet!” We even learn about Billi – the entire family, including Nai Nai, views her as too sensitive, something she has to learn to deal with as the film goes on. It’s a smart way of showing character growth without just haphazardly telling us in a monologue or voiceover, and I commend Wang for having the talent to pull it off.
This is a film that may even become more resonant and truthful for you as you dig into your own background – I myself learned in casual conversation with family members that a similar decision was made not too long ago. Wang is a master of specificity, in finding ways that make this story universal, and yet wholly unique. The sequence where Hao Hao (Chen Han) and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) have their wedding pictures taken is a prime example, playing on classic tropes and shared experiences surrounding terrible photos and the stress of planning, while adding the specificity of ostentatious sets, including a “grand” staircase, a throne, cheap floating hearts, and an elaborate paper forest (it plays out almost like a Stefon nightclub). The same can be said for a laugh-out-loud sequence set, strangely enough, in a graveyard – it’s a sequence that could appear in almost any family comedy, and yet the specificity breathes fresh life into otherwise-simplistic tropes. One of the most interesting – and underrated – details the film explores is the way families lie to each other. I’m not talking about massive, devastating lies. And I’m barely referring to the film’s central lie, the one between the family and Nai Nai. I’m talking about the way families hide details from each other out of fear of disappointment. From the very first scene, we see the way the family hides and deceives each other not for some sort of sinister, theatrical reason, but because they care too much about each other and want their version of a perfect relationship. Billi tells Nai Nai and her parents that things are looking up with her career, even though she’s missed out on her fellowship. Nai Nai lies to Billi about her location, not wanting her to know she’s sick in the hospital. Obviously, this hospital visit leads to the film’s central lie, and so on. While other films would focus on a shocking reveal, or demonize these characters for lying, Wang understands that fibbing and white lies are an essential, if imperfect means of family discourse, and inevitably dives deeper into why we tell them. In our own strange way, we do it out of love. And while not every family would forge hospital documents, perform a rush on a hospital, and coerce a wedding just to please a dying woman, we have all exaggerated or fibbed to our relatives, in the hopes of pleasing these people you deeply care about. The film understands the complicated nature of both this lie and the love and grief that fuel it. And just like your mother or your sibling may know, deep down, that you are lying to them, the film plays with just how much Nai Nai actually knows – at times she seems blissfully ignorant to her pending mortality, while other times she seems to be fully aware of the lengths her family is going to for her protection. By utilizing the universality of family secrets in this way, Wang manages to build her film up to an ending that somehow remains both one of the most heartbreaking endings and most joyfully sweet I’ve seen.
What’s also great about The Farewell is the way it explores cultural differences between two highly different (in theory, anyway) countries, as well as the experiences of a young immigrant caught between two worlds. The idea of a young woman returning to her home country and struggling to go back has been explored before, in 2015’s indelible Brooklyn, but while such a comparison would normally be viewed as a negative (who could ever dream of living up to Brooklyn?), I use it here as a highlight. The Farewell digs into the cultural differences and the struggles of an immigrant much in the same way as the 2015 classic, and manages to establish itself as a complementary piece, as opposed to a lazy knockoff. When Billi is asked by an eager, earnest Chinese bellhop, “Which is better? China or America?” her answer is honest to both the film and the character – “It’s…different.” This can be read a number of ways. On the one hand, she could just be saying this to appease the boy’s eagerness and avoid confrontation (Is he convinced of China’s superiority? Does he dream of the American Dream? Who knows?). However, it also drives to the film’s central conflict: the cultural divide between the Western sense of self versus the Eastern sense of community. While the decision to shield Nai Nai from her prognosis strikes our society as terrifying, due to our own obsession with living and dying on our own terms, the East, for religious, political, and societal reasons, view it as a part of the larger narrative – the individual is a part of a family, a community, an organization, and so on. The debate to tell her is a complicated, murky moral one, but it is in line with what each culture truly believes. The film smartly refuses to answer what the right answer is, just as it refuses to play favorites in the way each country is portrayed. While the film doesn’t shy away from issues plaguing China (including the remnants of the Cultural Revolution), it also gives insight into the country as a whole. Gone are stereotypes of crowded streets, miserable peasants, and third-world squalor. The honest, shot-on-location view of China Wang presents is as modern as any other major country on Earth, complete with its own sets of problems and perks. When Billi determines she wants to move to China to be with Nai Nai, it presents an interesting cultural dilemma, and allows the viewer to legitimately weigh the pros and cons of each option. Because at the end of the day, Billi is a product of both cultures – she is both Chinese and American, and that’s what the film desires to explore. However, as with Brooklyn, Billi’s debate between her two cultures, and their roles in her life, goes beyond the literal debate of East and West. It tackles her struggles with change and growing up. With her life not turning out the way she had hoped, her childhood home being torn down, and her beloved grandmother – the only woman she felt fully understood her – dying, the threat of change and the destruction of the past leave her in a tailspin. Billi’s journey is not just about saying goodbye to her grandmother – it is about becoming strong enough to face the world, and a changing future, head-on. Her journey to adulthood and journey to cultural understanding are one in the same, hand in hand, and the way Wang has explored and balanced that voyage is breathtaking to watch.
I’m already this far into my appraisal of this film, and I haven’t even touched on the filmmaking. Lulu Wang’s work here is some of the finest I’ve seen onscreen all year – or in several years. It’s impeccable how she manages to craft a truly modern film while drawing from the great styles that came before her – the ensemble dynamics of 70s dramas, the indie sharpness of the 90s, the resonant melodrama of the best works of the 30s and 40s, and so on. Wang is in full control of her film at all times, whether its through written metaphors, such as symbolic birds sporadically appearing in Billi’s room, visual choices like the close-ups on Awkwafina’s expressive (and game) face, and more. That cinematography is provided by Anna Franquesa Solano, and if there is any justice in the world, that is a name we will be seeing for years to come, in all varieties and genres of film. The score by Alex Weston is moody and soulful, inspired by classical Chinese music and the works of classic melodramas of the past. And the choices in editing are some of the smartest of the year, thanks to Wang as director and Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman as editors. While the film itself is sharply crafted from beginning to end, there are a few small moments of absolute brilliance in the editing that I want to shout out. During the climactic wedding, there is a scene where the camera whip pans around the table as the family excitedly sings and dances along to a Chinese pop song, all several drinks in. Each character gets a close-up, each makes a glorious fool of themselves, and yet it doesn’t matter – they are having fun with their family, creating memories that will carry on even when Nai Nai is no longer with them, and it is in many ways the heart of the film. Meanwhile, I also enjoyed a wide shot of the family walking in slow motion shortly after a close call preventing Nai Nai from discovering the truth. Wang, Solano, Taylor, and Friedman craft this scene to resemble a heist movie, and yet despite their success in the mission, everyone seems incredibly miserable. It’s a funny play on tropes, a stroke of genius cinematically, and a thematically complex and meaningful climax to a wonderful film. As I said, this is one of the best films of the year, across the board.
If you ask me six months from now what film had the best ensemble performance in 2019, I would be shocked if my answer is anything other than The Farewell. This is a marvelously acted film, led by commanding performances from Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhao. Awkwafina has been on a roll this past year, thanks to meaty performances in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. However, while those films still required a level of depth to their performances, and Awkwafina walked away with both movies well in hand, both films pale in comparison to what she does here. Awkwafina considerably tones down her classic “manic” shtick to create a snarky, loving, emotional young woman trying to figure out what she wants in life. The film rests squarely on her shoulders, and she manages to carry it with relative ease. Watch the way she composes herself when opposite Zhao, or the snark in her voice when dealing with her worrying parents, or the emotional catharsis when she finally lets all her emotions out. It’s masterful work. And yet, I almost believe she is outdone by Zhao, whose performance as Nai Nai is otherworldly. Zhao manages to embody all of our collective grandmothers in one loving, energetic ball, despite her prognosis. Zhao carries the love in her heart clearly on her face, and delivers each line, filled with compassion, sass, and wisdom, with relative flourishes. You can almost read her mind as she forces her grandchildren to eat, teases her son, and tries to set her granddaughter up with her doctor. And when we see her in her final moments, tearfully waving goodbye to a moving car, it will crush your spirit with the same intensity as the opening to Up. She is the heart of the film, and a just world would see her nominated for an Oscar next January. Meanwhile, Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are faultless as Billi’s father and mother. Tzi Ma brings a raw emotional honesty to his performance as he tries to walk the delicate line of respecting the family’s wishes while grieving his mother’s death, while Lin is rightfully aggravated at the world, as she has to handle her husband and daughter as the only one capable of separating her emotions (she also knows how to deliver a one-liner). Other great performances come from Jiang Yongbo as Haibin, Billi’s uncle, Zhang Jing as Billi’s aunt, and Jim Liu as Nai Nai’s doctor. And I was personally drawn to the work of Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara as Hao Hao and Aiko, the young couple whose engagement is used to shield Nai Nai from the truth. Both Han and Mizuhara have a clear control over their bodies for physical comedy, and they get some of the film’s biggest laughs as the awkward couple at the center of it all (a sequence where Hao Hao breaks down crying while drunk is particularly great). Oh, and I want to give a special shout-out to Lu Hong, who plays Nai Nai’s younger sister. I thought she was a commanding screen presence and looked her up to write about her previous credits, only to discover that she is, in fact, Lulu Wang’s real-life great-aunt, playing herself. The fact the film can so seamlessly blend fact and fiction, while still maintaining its respectability and charisma, is the mark of a true master being born.
I’ve done my best to convey the deep love I hold for The Farewell, but I’m not sure I’ve done it justice. This is a truly beautiful film, from beginning to end. Wang has a distinct, unique eye for detail that makes every aspect of this film sing, from the production to the story to the thematic material. This is a star-making turn for the director, for the cast, and beyond. It’s the type of emotional release that brings us to the theatres – it’ll make us laugh, and cry, and feel, and think. There aren’t nearly enough films like The Farewell being made any more, and I’m hoping this film changes things. It’s a film that anyone and everyone can relate to, enjoy, and bond over. It is art at its finest, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.