As The Farewell‘s title card reads “Based on an actual lie”, Lulu Wang’s incredibly poignant comedic drama fictionalises a culturally significant moment in her own life and packages it in a manner that serves as an intimate examination of life for all audiences, regardless of their race or belief system.
An emotionally charged study of a family in turmoil, The Farewell centres itself around the Wang family and the cultural belief they harbour in keeping life-threatening news from their matriarch, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Rushing a wedding for young Hao Hao (Chen Han), Nai Nai’s grandson, and his Japanese girlfriend of only 3 months as a cover for the family to be by Nai Nai’s side, the Wang family slowly unravel as the seriousness of Nai Nai’s condition becomes greater with every passing day.
Though designed as an ensemble piece, it’s the relationship between Nai Nai and her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) that cements itself as the film’s heart and soul. A Chinese-American immigrant who defies the wishes of her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) by travelling to China for the event – it’s noted early on that Billi has no poker face when it comes to her own emotions – Billi acts as something of a moral compass for us as viewers as she fears keeping the truth from Nai Nai will do more harm than good.
Quite often a performer who excels in broad comedic tones, Awkwafina adopts a more measured approach as Billi, harnessing an ability to express more through a look than words, though when the script calls for the actress to hone her humour, it’s delivered with a flawless ease; true to life, The Farewell often blends genuine humour with its more heartbreaking moments.
As much as Awkwafina impresses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if her performance is one that is shuffled around the upcoming award season, it’s Zhao Shuzhen’s endearingly warm turn as Nai Nai that is undoubtedly the film’s strongest. With equal parts regality and vibrancy, Shuzhen radiates an honesty that instantly hooks us as a viewer; for the film’s 98 minute running time, she’s our Nai Nai (the Chinese term for grandmother) just as much as she is Billi’s.
A film that is so precious in its restraint, The Farewell never exaggerates its material, and never do you feel a typical Oscar-bait moment looming from its beautifully subtle cast. An utterly engaging experience, Wang’s film succeeds as both a form of entertainment and an intimate reminder of the importance of family, so best rustle yours together and venture out to see this immediately.
About The Farewell
A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.
The Farewell (PG) is screening in Australian theatres from September 5th 2019.