The Farewell is about a Chinese-American woman who travels with her family to see her grandmother in China. They are staging a wedding to get the family together one last time because grandmother is dying of cancer and doesn't know it. The film stars Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and Shuzhen Zhao. It is written and directed by Lulu Wang.
There's an intriguing notion within The Farewell. The notion that knowing of cancer is what kills a person. The fear and the stress compounds to make them worse and expedites their death. If they don't know, though, there may be a chance their time left will be pleasant. The characters talk of carrying the emotional burden of the diagnosis for those that are dying. It's a nice thought, but it's built on a lie.
There are several lies in the film, not just the big one. Billi is lying to her parents about her fellowship. Their cousins lie about how much better they are because they stayed in China rather than moving abroad. Haiyan is lying about his vices. Even Nai Nai is lying about her own health. She knows. She has to know. There are several scenes as the family waits on her, or when they travel to the hospital together where she can see it written on their faces. I think she lies to them to keep them there for a little while. Nai Nai is like all of us who wish we had an excuse to get our relatives or our found family together, something big that would ensure their participation.
This is where I appreciate Shuzhen Zhao's performance. You can see it as she fakes her happiness or she tries to show strength and even pick on the others for not being as happy as she is. She convinces us she's oblivious while showing those hints of understanding. Like all of us when we have sad news, we'd rather everyone talk about something that brings great joy rather than sulk and remind us of our misery.
Awkwafina's character Billi lives in that tragic moment, though, that denial of the truth and the pain that wants to live on the surface. Awkwafina is able to show more range than she has in previous roles. She shows off the incredible talent she has with her clever comedic timing mixed with an intensity for the big scenes. She's able to transcend her persona and disappear into this character to great effect.
Though, a great amount of credit for the beauty of this film has to go to its writer and director Lulu Wang. Wang has written something with a delicate balance of oddball comedy and serious drama. It's one of those personal films that is so bizarre it has to be true. She does, as every great writer does, and finds those moments of reality amid the heartbreak and laughter. She builds fantastic dinner scenes with the family sparring and her contemplative scenes steeped in symbolism. She's got the perfect marriage of writing and visual style.
The term universal is thrown around to signify that you don't have to be of a certain group to "get it." It's a term I've used to try and get people to see more diverse works, but The Farewell isn't universal, it's personal. It's a window into the intimacy and intricacy of family and society. The Farewell is a love letter to the complicated nature of family and the lengths we can go to to keep those we love at peace. It's beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. I think it's a film everyone should experience. The Farewell is a filmmaker's personal vision and attempt at rectifying and understanding themselves and it is something to behold.