Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Yongbo Jiang, Hong Lu
Austin Family Critical Rating: ***** of *****
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: **** ½ of *****
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is one of the breakout hits of the summer. The film is a love letter to Wang’s real-life Chinese family, and a moving (but funny!) meditation on grief and loss. It’s wonderful to see this film (along with original movies like Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and Yesterday) currently placing in the box office top ten, somehow holding its own amidst the onslaught of sequels, franchise reboots and Disney’s repackaging of old hits.
Awkwafina stars as Billi, a Chinese-American woman living in New York City. As the film opens, Billi’s parents inform her that her paternal grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), is dying of cancer with only months to live. Per Chinese tradition, however, the diagnosis is kept hidden from Nai Nai, and the family travels to China to say goodbye to her – under the appearance of celebrating the engagement of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen), to his girlfriend. The lengths to which the family maintains this charade to avoid telling Nai Nai the truth provides the film with much of its humor.
Billi is initially not invited to join the family because of her close attachment to her grandmother – in her parents’ eyes, Billi won’t be emotionally capable of hiding the truth from Nai Nai. But when Billi travels to China to join the family as a surprise, she’s humorously not the person most likely to break the news. Her uncle, Haibin (Yongbo Jiang), gives her a humorously stern warning to maintain her composure around Nai Nai. But when giving a speech at Hao Hao’s “wedding ceremony,” Haibin breaks down into tears and apologizes to his mother for moving away to Japan and not visiting her for so many years. It’s a heartbreaking moment that’s underscored by the hilarious pageantry and formality of the fake wedding.
The Farewell is full of bittersweet moments like this. There’s scene in which Billi’s mother, Jian (Diana Lin), makes plans with Billi’s great aunt Little Nai Nai (Hong Lu) to visit the United States once Nai Nai passes away and Little Nai Nai isn’t serving as her sister’s caretaker. But both characters know, and we know, that these plans will never come to fruition. The Farewell is partly a film about a separated family that rarely gathers as a whole, and when they do, it becomes tragically apparent how much time they’ve lost together.
Billi’s inner struggle as to whether she should tell her grandmother the truth is a fascinating one – not only because it explores the disconnect Billi feels from her Chinese heritage and traditions, but also because it raises an interesting question. If Billi tells Nai Nai she’s dying, who is it for? Is telling Nai Nai simply a way for Billi to relieve her own guilt for knowing? As Billi’s father articulates late in the film, this is a burden for the family to collectively bear, in order for Nai Nai’s final days to be as peaceful as possible.
If I have one small criticism of The Farewell, it’s that our protagonist’s journey is sometimes lost amidst the amazing interactions between the rest of the family. We’re given brief, somewhat perfunctory information about Billi’s life in New York in the film’s opening, but it’s sometimes easy for her to fade into the background as The Farewell progresses. But this certainly doesn’t detract from the power of the film.
There are few people who won’t connect on some level to The Farewell – it’s a beautiful example of cultural specificity leading to universal truth. Wang has made an extraordinary tribute to her family, and it’s one of the great cinema treasures of the summer.
The Farewell is rated PG, and outside of the film’s thematic concerns with grief and loss, there isn’t anything objectionable in the film. I’d recommend it for the whole family.