The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang, is the type of emotional experience that lives in your bones long after viewing the film. It deals with the immediate traumas of death and loss — knowing they are ever looming. The Farewell isn’t about characters reaching catharsis, but about dealing with repressed emotions — all while worrying about the future. The beauty of The Farewell is that it is a much-needed heart-wrenching film.
Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American living in New York, lies to her family about unimportant things, so they don’t worry. For example, when her grandmother living in China, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), asks her if she is wearing a hat in the cold New York weather, Billi lies and says that she is. Billi’s family has a history of telling white lies in order not to distress each other. Nai Nai also lies to Billi and says she is visiting a family member when she is actually at the hospital getting necessary tests done. One day, Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) says that Nai Nai is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family has decided not to let Nai Nai know this fact, believing in a Chinese maxim that “people don’t die of cancer — they die of the fear.” Billi’s family quickly orchestrates a wedding as a reason for everyone to visit China. Billi is distressed that her family is lying to Nai Nai about such an important matter. Still, she must keep faking a smile as this might be the last time she sees her grandmother.
Lulu Wang’s script makes perfect use of its simplicity to create a heartbreaking film. There are laughs as Nai Nai, and Billi’s family are genuinely charming and hilarious people, yet what makes the ‘film’s emotion beats so impressive is that they are entirely natural. There is very little catharsis during the film, although Billi — and the audience— wish that there were. There are few grand statements between characters or moments of profound realization. The occasional moments of joy are truncated in a way that leaves the audience wishing we could spend more time in them.
Furthermore, The Farewell is about people dealing with long-repressed and hiding their repression — the incredible subtlety of what Wang was able to achieve is merely remarkable. Based on Wang’s life own life helps the story, but that shouldn’t overshadow the gentle touch that is present in every scene.
The performances also mirror Wang’s perfect mix of light humor and a big worry. While she has made a name for herself through performances in Ocean’s Thirteen and Crazy Rich Asians — Awkwafina gives a career-defining performance in The Farewell. Stifled emotions she wears on her face throughout display her incredible acting. We’ve seen Awkwafina play several lively characters, which makes her performance here is wonderfully unexpected due to the contrast. Awkwafina has rare moments of “big acting” in The Farewell, but she is all the better for it. Billi is dealing with many conflicting feelings that can’t be exorcised in one “awards clip” speech. Her performance will hopefully help her continue to break away from any potential typecasting and into more dramatic roles.
The real star of the film, though, is Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai — it is impossible not to smile any time she is on-screen. While she is given several chances to be a stereotypical worrying grandmother (making sure Billi is warm, well-fed, and hopefully finding a ”special friend” soon), she is also delightfully feisty in a way that very realistic. Nai Nai is not a caricature of a grandparent. She is a flesh-and-blood person brought to life both though Zhao’s excellent performance and Wang’s writing. The power of The Farewell is in how much you care for the characters, as Nai Nai slowly becomes a member of your own family — making you smile and cry along with everyone around her.
The Farewell is a remarkable gift as it is a rarity a film has the power to make so many people feel so many emotions within its 98-minute runtime. Somewhere this film will be waiting for you. In your mind. In your queue. On your shelf. It will be there when you need it — even when you didn’t know you needed it. Wang has given our generation both fantastic cinematic entertainment and something our souls ‘didn’t realize they needed.