The Farewell (2019)

‘Based on an actual lie’. So says the opening title card of this comedy drama, the entertaining second feature written and directed by Lulu Wang. And although characters and situations are embellished, this is very much an autobiographical tale with a central premise that reaffirms the cliche that truth is stranger than fiction.

The Farewell is the story of Billi (played by Awkwafina a.k.a. Nora Lum of Crazy Rich Asians fame as well as the singer of ‘My Vag’), a twenty-something Chinese-American woman living alone in New York. Billi has deliberately distanced herself from her extended family which she finds embarassingly parochial; she prefers a more independent western, city life. She wants to be a writer, but although she is barely making enough to pay the bills she would never dream of asking her family for assistance.

Awkwafina and Tzi Ma in The Farewell (2019)
Billi (Awkwafina) and her father (Tzi Ma) have a detached relationship in The Farewell (2019)

Life changes when Billi’s beloved grandmother, her ‘Nai Nai’ (Zhao Shuzhen), is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, with a prognosis of only months to live. Billi decides to join her family to visit Nai Nai in the Chinese city of Changchun, where Billi spent her childhood. The problem is that Nai Nai hasn’t been told about her illness, the family chose to keep it a secret from her and so the extended family must go through the pretence of a fake wedding of her cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to his new girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Muzuhara).

Billi is upset about this deception, which her family insist is a common Chinese custom, but agrees to go through with the charade. The film follows the family gathering in China where Billi faces up to the complexities of her dual heritage.

Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhao, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Hong Lu, and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019)
Wedding photos: Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhao, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Hong Lu, and Awkwafina

The Farewell is an engaging and funny drama. It draws humour from the interactions between family members and their comfortable eccentricities and its this warmth that allows us to share the renewed affection and awkward feelings that Billi has for her family. There’s also some pleasing gentle farce in the pretend-marriage couple’s glum and awkward demeanour as they go through the motions, including some bizarrely tacky preparations that appear even stranger through Billi’s western perspective, the camera framing emphasising the otherness.

Shuzhen Zhao, Han Chen, and Aoi Mizuhara in The Farewell (2019)
Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) suspiciously observes the awkward romance of the happy couple (Han Chen and Aoi Mizuhara)

As an ensemble piece, each of the family members are sketched out in just enough detail to seem real, in a way that reminded me of Kore-eda’s Still Walking. Once the cast was assembled they bonded by visiting Changchun, the filming location and also where Wang’s real family live. When they were there, the cast spent time with the family, bonded over several meals and the memories of this visit inspired the actual shoot.

Billi (Awkwafina) and Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) have a strong connection and share a sense of irrevent fun

The central relationship between Billi and Nai Nai is particularly warm and affecting. They share a sense of fun, often laughing together and they are both kind and determinedly independent.

Zhao Shuzhen is entertaining as the determined and likable matriarch. Director Lulu Wang was present at the European premiere where I saw the film as part of the Sundance London festival. She said that the role of the grandmother took a long time to cast. Shuzhen is a famous Chinese soap opera star who took some persuading to take on the role, not least because the role demanded that her hair must be natural grey, rather than the dyed black hair that she has worn for her entire career.

By contrast, Wang said that Awkwafina was cast quickly when she was a relative unknown, long before her other successes. She got the role in the auditions partly because of her emotional responses that filled the silences between dialogue. Awkwafina is excellent as Billi, her restlessness and her passive slouching posture mark her awkward relationship with her family and with Chinese traditions.

Lulu Wang discussing The Farewell at the European Premiere at Sundance London on 1st June 2019
Lulu Wang discussing The Farewell at the European Premiere at Sundance London on 1st June 2019

Billi’s status is the centre of the film. Like many people of mixed heritage, she doesn’t feel she belongs in either Chinese or American culture. The visit home allows her to reaffirm her fond relationship with her grandmother, but the customs now seem alien to her. She quietly laments the streets and buildings that she discovers had long since vanished and that are reduced to memories, her connections are disappearing. But on the other hand she never feels truly American. That otherness, that self-imposed rootlessness is the situation that The Farewell explores.

Such cultural contrasts come up frequently in conversations. Discussions about attitudes towards making money that seem brash by Western standards but fine by Chinese perspectives. A porter enquiring about life in the US, a hospital doctor who is admired because he studied in the UK. And perhaps most poignantly a conversation that helps Billi (and us) understand the compassionate and selfless attitude behind the apparent ploy, values that elevate family as a unit over what is seen as Western independence.

Diana Lin and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019)
Diana Lin and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019)

The film style is straightforward, linear and unshowy. It avoids the usual clich├ęs of international locations: there are no aerial shots of glowing skyscrapers and glamourous city lights. Billi doesn’t live in on Manhattan island and Nai Nai doesn’t live in a mega-city like Shanghai, their homes are much more anonymous and modest. The camera and editing is subservient to the character and story. The music is a little over-saccharine at times, but it isn’t cloying.

The Farewell does however allow itself the occasional metaphor. Twice, a bird enters a room through an open window and struggles to find its freedom, which is perhaps a metaphor of the Billi’s constrictions; at the end a flurry of birds takes off from a tree into a wide blue sky.

Admittedly, the pacing can feel a little slow at times due to a deliberate repetition of moods, dialogue and interactions and perhaps if the film had been tightened up a little the final understated emotional payoff would have been more affecting. But we needed to take the time to understand the characters and their relationships.

The Farewell is a quiet, engaging film that celebrates the value of family and explores the very modern situation of mixed heritage. Its warm and funny, and surprisingly affecting.

Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhao, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Hong Lu, Diana Lin, and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019)
The formidable family: Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhao, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Hong Lu, Diana Lin, and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019)

A minor spoiler: despite it’s playful title card statement, the film is based on a true story, Lulu Wang’s family did stage a family gathering as a farewell to her grandmother. As a coda, we learn that her real grandmother is still alive and healthy, despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Incredibly, Lulu Wang confided that she has kept the film a secret from her grandmother. The reason: because she didn’t want her grandmother to learn of the central deceit! The Farewell has been a big success in the US and I expect will do well in the UK and worldwide so I imagine that secret will become increasingly difficult to keep. Don’t tell!

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