REVIEW – ‘The Farewell’ is a touching ode to the power of familial love

When a film begins with the title-card “based on an actual lie,” you know you’re in for an intriguing piece of cinema. Such is the case with The Farewell; writer/director Lulu Wang‘s sublime autobiographical sophomore film, inspired by the true story of a rather shocking deception she was forced to perform out of familial obligation.

An authentic and touching look at the cultural divide between two wildly different civilisations, The Farewell offers an insight into a traditional practice many will be unfamiliar with. And perhaps rather startled by. But with the deft care of a filmmaker determined to portray the “actual lie” with deep sensitivity and respect, the resulting film is ultimately rather beautiful. Bring your tissues. You’re going to need them.

Chinese-American Billi (an award-worthy Awkwafina) is a 30-year-old aspiring writer, living in Brooklyn and barely getting by. After immigrating to the U.S. with her parents at the age of six, Billi remains deeply connected to her beloved grandmother (an endearing Zhao Shuzhen, in her screen debut at the age of 75), known as Nai Nai, back in her hometown of Changchun, China.

As the two share one of their regular phone calls, it becomes clear their long-distance relationship is full of little white lies to avoid unnecessary concern. Billi tells her grandmother her writing career and social life are both flourishing when that’s clearly untrue. When Billi hears odd background noises on the other end of the phone, Nai Nai lies insists she’s at the home of her younger sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) when really she’s awaiting a CT scan at the local hospital.

But these white lies prove to be nothing compared to what’s to come. When the doctors inform Little Nai Nai her sister has stage 4 lung cancer and less than three months to live, she chooses to keep the diagnosis from Nai Nai and, in accordance with Chinese tradition, only inform members of her immediate family including Nai Nai’s son and Billi’s father Haiyan (Tzi Ma), his wife Jian (Diana Lin), and his older brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo).

At first, Billi’s parents attempt to hide the news from their daughter, knowing she will struggle to keep the secret from her dear grandmother. But Billi soon suspects something is terribly wrong and demands to know the truth. When she’s informed of their plans to keep the terminal prognosis from Nai Nai, Billi is horrified and confused. While Chinese people believe such a diagnosis can lead to death by fear rather than the illness itself, Billi has been raised in America where this kind of medical deception would be considered illegal.

Back in Changchun, a hasty wedding has been organised for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), despite the fact the pair have only been dating for three months. Of course, the wedding is really just the perfect cover for the entire family to gather together for the first time in decades, in an effort to give each of them the chance to see Nai Nai one last time, even if she doesn’t know it.

The wedding provides much farcical comedy fodder for writer/director Wang to mine, even if the entire conceit is terribly tragic in nature. Whether it’s Nai Nai taking over the planning of the small wedding and turning it into a huge banquet feast so the family doesn’t look cheap or the awkward wedding photos in front of a series of tacky backdrops or the ceremony itself, complete with drunken speeches and bad karaoke, there are plenty of laughs to be found in such a gloomy narrative.

But the sombre news of Nai Nai’s ailing health looms over the family’s everyday proceedings with an inescapable sense of melancholy hanging over practically every frame of the film. Occasionally, it all becomes too much for some family members, leading to bouts of uncontrollable emotions or silent contemplation, always kept hidden from Nai Nai to allow the facade to remain unbroken. There are numerous moments of The Farewell that will genuinely break your heart, particularly the film’s titular climax, which we know is coming, yet can’t bear to fathom.

Drawing from her own life and experience with keeping this very same secret from her own Nai Nai, Wang has crafted a deeply personal piece with an emotional resonance that’s impossible not to be moved by. Striking right at the core of the cultural differences between China and America, Wang offers a film that tackles the confusion of its protagonist head-on, given it’s the very conflict Wang herself felt when placed in the same impossible situation of lying to a family member she truly cherished. Finding herself in an unfathomable position, Billi is forced to rectify with her own beliefs in favour of a culture she’s completely disconnected from.

It’s this cultural disconnect that lies at the heart of Billi’s journey back to China; a land she remembers little of and a language she only has a passing grasp on, much to her embarrassment. She feels almost contempt towards her parents for immigrating to America (especially given how unsuccessful her life has become) and the resulting loss of identity with her homeland and proximity to her extended family. She’s lost in conversations explicitly in Mandarin and confused by local traditions like a ceremony at her grandfather’s grave. Wang purposely scripts much of the film in Mandarin and leaves these traditional practices unexplained, allowing the audience to closely identify with Billi’s detachment from her Chinese roots.

At the heart of The Farewell is an impressively nuanced performance by Awkwafina, who must be amongst the Best Actress conversation come awards season. After stealing focus with comedic supporting turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, she’s taken a surprising dramatic turn here, which she handles as effortlessly as she does comedy. While it’s a performance lacking her usual firecracker personality, it’s ultimately far more impressive, given the range of emotions she’s asked to portray. Both in utter grief and faux happiness, her enormously expressive face captures the inner turmoil Billi is experiencing. In a role practically tailor-made for the actor, Awkwafina shines, crafting a character so charming and empathetic, you cannot help but be impressed by what she has achieved.

Surrounding our leading lady is a wonderful ensemble cast of Asian actors who combine to create an incredibly authentic family dynamic so wildly believable, you would swear the performers are actually related. While each provides both dramatic tension and delicious comedy, it’s Shuzhen who really steals the show as the endlessly lovable family matriarch. Both incredibly warm and fiery acerbic, Nai Nai will likely remind you of your own grandmother, particularly in her powerfully strong sense of protection over her family members.

There’s a captivating softness to Shuzhen’s performance that hints at Nai Nai perhaps knowing her time is running out, whether by way of her age or even a suspicion that nagging cough is more than her family is letting on. Despite her apparent blissful unawareness at her diagnosis, Nai Nai takes full advantage of every moment with her family, especially her granddaughter. Their deep connection is a true thing of beauty, making the crux of the narrative that much more heartbreaking. Awkwafina and Shuzhen have terrific chemistry together, making their relationship so beautifully genuine and affecting.

While its setting, language, and traditions may seem foreign, The Farewell is a universal tale that will strike a chord with audiences of any nationality. Whether you empathise with the confusing conflict of familial obligation or relate to the guilt at living far away from cherished loved ones, there is plenty within this narrative you will connect with. The idea of keeping a terminal illness from an elderly family member will likely shock many, but Wang treats this cultural practice with deep respect and understanding to perhaps even enlighten audiences to how this could potentially be a far kinder way of dealing with a cancer diagnosis late in life.

It’s clear in writing The Farewell, Wang has accepted her experiences and come to peace with the challenging position she was once placed in. The film never passes judgement on the practice, nor does it seek to offer the idea of lying as an alternative solution Western society should adopt. Instead, Wang leaves that evaluation squarely with the viewer, allowing us to walk away with our own rationalisations on whether Nai Nai was being cruelly misled or offered an opportunity to enjoy her final days free of the fear of death,

Even without its refreshingly obscure conceit, The Farewell is a touching ode to the power of familial love and the unshakeable bond between granddaughter and grandmother that cannot be broken by distance. If like me, you were lucky enough to experience such a connection with your grandmother, this film will hit you like a freight train. And perhaps that explains my final score. This one was personal for this film critic for a number of reasons.

But no film this year has touched me quite like this one. No film has elicited such genuine sobs and heartwrenching emotion. Or invaded my mind for days on end afterwards. It is undoubtedly a bittersweet film, full of delightful highs and crushing lows to create a wonderfully rounded piece of cinema that’s amongst the year’s very best. With enough levity to balance the solemnity, The Farewell is an unforgettable experience that demands repeat viewings.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang
Director: Lulu Wang
Producers: Danielle Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, Anita Gou
Screenplay: Lulu Wang
Cinematography: Anna Franquesa Solano
Music: Alex Weston
Production Design: Yong Ok Lee
Editing: Michael Taylor, Matthew Friedman
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: 5th September 2019 (Australia)