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Review: The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell (2019)

Directed by: Lulu Wang

Premise: A Chinese-American (Awkwafina) travels to her homeland after discovering that her grandmother is dying of cancer. The extended family members are keeping the diagnosis a secret from the matriarch.

What Works: The Farewell is a deceptively simple story that is full of interesting characters, nuanced storytelling, and a complex regard for family and identity. The narrative is straightforward; a Chinese-American woman discovers that her grandmother is terminally ill and that the extended family is lying to their elder about her health. Meanwhile, one of the grandchildren fast tracks a wedding to his Japanese bride but the nuptials are really an excuse to gather the family while the grandmother is still alive. The premise sets up a vivid conflict; this young woman feels that her grandmother ought to know the truth but family custom dictates that she be kept in blissful ignorance. This first seems like cruel condescension for the elderly but the story reveals something more nuanced and The Farewell is about the lies that we tell to ourselves and to those closest to us in order to live happily. This theme is built into the filmmaking and The Farewell is a terrifically crafted piece of work. Director Lulu Wang stages the action in ways that draws out the subtext. The film also uses music well, placing dramatic pieces in the right spots without overstating the emotion of the scene. The story’s central conflict is also about cultural differences between the east and the west and how individuality and family and community are conceived differently. That’s embodied in the experience of this young woman who is Chinese by birth but has lived an American life and finds herself negotiating between different cultures and trying to reconcile who she is. The Farewell is led by Awkwafina; the actress is primarily known for comedy and while she is occasionally funny here this is primarily a dramatic role and Awkwafina is terrific, hinting at her character’s inner tension throughout the movie. Also impressive are Tzi Ma and Diana Lin as her parents; they are afforded a lot of nuance but experience grief differently from their daughter. Shuzhen Zhou is cast as the grandmother and she is a ball of energy and life that contrasts with her family’s grief. The wedding brings together family members from all over the globe; this is reflected in the dialogue with characters speaking a variety of languages including Mandarin, English, and Japanese. That makes The Farewell a truly international picture; like the central character, this is a movie whose national and cultural identity is complicated. But The Farewell is also about all the things that transcend culture—life and death and youth and old age—and it packs this heavy thematic material into an accessible and ultimately joyful story about family and identity.

What Doesn’t: The Farewell is based on a true story. The picture was written and directed by Lulu Wang who dramatized events from her own life. The one flaw of this movie is in the coda sequence that concludes the picture. Although based on life, The Farewell is fiction; its characters take on a life of their own that’s divorced from whatever might have happened in reality and the filmmakers tell this story beautifully and the final moments are terrifically poignant. But The Farewell ends on footage of the actual grandmother adjoined by text that fills in what happened to her. That information is out of step with and ultimately irrelevant to the fictional story that’s been told and it raises a lot of other questions just as the viewer is exiting the film.

Bottom Line: The Farewell is a nearly perfect movie. The filmmaking, the performances, and the storytelling coalesce in an extraordinarily satisfying story that is far more complicated than it initially appears and weaves drama and comedy together in a way that makes a lasting impact.

Episode: #762 (August 18, 2019)