Directed by: Lulu Wang
Length: 98 Minutes
The Farewell, which opening titles tell us is based on an actual lie, tells the story Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling Chinese-American writer whose family decides to hide from her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) the fact that she is dying. Instead, the family arranges a wedding as an excuse for everyone to travel back to China to see Nai Nai (grandmother) one last time. Billi is told not to go because she doesn’t control her emotions well and may end up telling Nai Nai that she has cancer. Billi disregards her family’s wishes though and the result is an entertaining, thought-provoking and very touching masterpiece.
I will admit, I was initially apprehensive about this film for two reasons. The first was the whole wedding element. A lot of films fall into the trap of using a wedding as the setting for stories dealing with family dysfunction. Some films have done this well, but I’ve noticed even the good ones often run into problems when the director becomes too enthralled with filming the ceremony. In Rachel Getting Married, for example, there are a lot of interesting character dynamics and a lot of beautifully filmed wedding scenes. The problem is that the two only mix about half the time. That, thankfully, is not the case with The Farewell. While the wedding is definitely something discussed throughout the narrative and the ceremony itself even comprises a lengthy 15-20 minute segment, every frame is still about the character dynamics and the clash between the differing value systems within this family.
The second thing I was apprehensive about was the PG rating. Sometimes family dramas or dramedies that get PG ratings are too pure or too sappy (or both) to really hit home. When I see a PG rating on a film about family conflict, red lights start going of in my mind that say “danger, Hallmark! Avoid! Avoid!” Fortunately The Farewell is about a million times better than any Hallmalarkey. I don’t know if I just created the term “Hallmalarkey,” but I’m going to use it a lot from now on.
I love films that commit themselves to immersing the viewer into a culture or era or lifestyle. This is certainly one of those films, but of course the subject matter is universal. The attention to details is nothing less than exquisite. So much of the pleasure of watching The Farewell comes from how language and food and art and music are woven into the story in ways that enhance the theme.
One complaint I often hear about dialogue heavy releases like this is that they resemble filmed plays. Though there are definitely long scenes of characters just talking about their jobs or education or children (usually while eating), it would be impossible to do The Farewell on a stage without losing some of what makes it special. The use of language, including who speaks which language, when, and to whom, is an important element here and some of the script’s observations wouldn’t work without film’s ability to feature subtitles.
Wang creates a visual feast here not just with food (I was very hungry when I saw this), but with architecture and subtle wardrobe touches. I like when directors and cinematographers find ways to make dialogue heavy, character driven films still feel like an epic cinematic experience. I think the best recent example of such a film is Roma. This isn’t quite on that level visually, but it’s close.
The acting is great. Awkwafina had a pretty good year last year, but she’s going to have a better one this year. If she is not Oscar nominated for this, then the Oscars will lose the fragment of credibility they still have. I also really enjoyed Tzi Ma as Haiyan, Billi’s father. A talented character actor who’s been in TV shows like ER and 24 and appeared in a number of films including Arrival, Ma just blew me away with this performance. Haiyan, like several members of this family, is caught in the middle between the Western values represented (at least early in the film) by Billi and the Eastern values that are represented by his older brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo). His struggle to navigate these disagreements often manifests in contrary ways, and Ma nails every nuance.
The Farewell is kind of in wide release now, but I did still have to drive an hour to see it. I hope word of mouth continues to be positive and it gets added to more screens in the coming weeks. If not though, it’s worth the drive. I enjoyed every second I got to spend with these characters. I don’t think I’ve said it yet in 2019, but this is one of the best films of the year.