The Farewell is a hilarious and heartfelt ode to family
Over the years it’s easy to become cynical about Sundance darlings, especially when they are heartfelt comedy-dramas about families. And while The Farewell certainly fits that stereotype, it actually delivers on the hype spilling out of the thin mountain air. Lulu Wang’s film is not only well-written, but superbly directed with wonderful (and often understated performances). Definitely one of the best moviegoing experiences of 2019 thus far.
Billi (Awkwafina) has lived in the United States from the time she was six years old, and currently lives near her parents in New York City. Her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Mai) emigrated from Changchun, while her father’s mother, Billi’s Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) still lives in China. Despite the distance, Billi and her Nai Nai are close, often talking on the phone to keep in touch. Meanwhile, her family learns that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In keeping with cultural trends/traditions, the family chooses not to tell Nai Nai. In order to see her without getting suspicious, they stage a wedding between Billi’s cousin Haohao (Han Chen) and his Japanese girlfriend in Changchun. Hilarity and heartfelt emotions ensue.
From the opening scene, Wang establishes that Billi and her Nai Nia have a close relationship despite their geographic distance, often talking on the phone or using FaceTime. Their connection is what makes the entire film work. If Billi’s grandmother was someone who she barely remembered from childhood half a world away, none of the story would carry the impact. And Zhao Shuzhen plays the most grandmotherly grandmother who ever grandmothered. Her performance brings to life Nai Nai as a woman who shows love through equal parts worry and silliness, and in ways that Billi’s parents' generation never experiences, which feels so right.
On a deeper level, Nai Nai represents Billi’s connection to her birthplace. She has warm memories of China and her young life there. Later in the film, she talks about the solitude of growing up apart from her larger family, even if she understands why her parents left for America. Billi hasn’t seen her cousin since since he was a small boy, and now he is getting married. Preparing to say goodbye to her grandmother is also her preparing to say goodbye to China, maybe for the last time. And when she asks about seeing where they used to live, she can’t, because that neighborhood doesn’t exist anymore. Bulldozed to make way for more high rises. Suffice to say there are many farewells in this film.
But The Farewell leans just as hard, if not harder, into its comedy elements. None of the characters exist purely for comic relief, though. Even the mostly silent Haohao undergoes an entire character arc consisting mostly of reactions to things going on around him. Like a more grounded Meet the Parents, Billi’s refusal to accept her culture’s tradition compounds the loopy nature of extended families coming together on a rare occasion. It manifests in all kinds of funny ways, finding humor in the assumptions made about American and Chinese characters, the juxtaposition between weddings and death, and the things that are said or left unsaid.
All of these elements are worked to their maximum potential because of Lulu Wang’s talents as a director. Much of the film takes place in small apartments or hotel rooms, and Wang manages to utilize those locations to artfully show the characters in those spaces. Whether it be reactions from faces sitting around the dinner table or a heartfelt conversation with her mom while her father sleeps on a hotel bed beside her, you can feel the presence of the filmmaker in every shot. And not in a forced baroque sense, but with the same joy as seeing fingerprints left on clay models in a stop-motion animated film. There’s a human behind this story, and she is telling it the exact way she wants to. And it is beautiful.
P.S. Call your grandmother. Or think of a memory of her.
P.P.S. Eat some homecooked food.
The Farwewell opens at the Ritz East today and in more Philly theaters next Friday.