Intimate and honest, The Farewell taps into something universal and emotionally resonant about a Chinese family preparing for the loss of its matriarch.
When you see the name Awkwafina attached to a project, you’re probably thinking you’re in for a comedy. But while The Farewell does an excellent job of finding the inherently absurd and, yes, humorous moments in a tragedy, it would be a mistake to assume that you’re not going to cry during this film. You will — a lot.
In The Farewell, we are introduced to an aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina) who learns that her beloved grandmother has just been diagnosed with lung cancer and has only three months to live. Her family, following what is apparently fairly standard Asian protocol, makes the decision not to tell her about the illness, instead allowing her to live out the rest of her days without anxiety or sadness. They do, however, orchestrate a fairly elaborate fake wedding for Billi’s cousin, which will give everyone an excuse to return to China and see the grandmother for what will likely be the last time.
Are lies necessarily bad if they’re committed with the best of intentions? Billi struggles with her family’s decision on this matter, largely because she is torn between two very different belief systems.
In the West, a dying person has the right to their diagnosis, and their ability to decide how to spend their last days on earth is sacred. In the East, a dying person’s family sees it as their responsibility to shield them from the unpleasant news, and to carry the emotional burden for them is considered a tremendous act of love. Billi, born in China but raised in New York, is caught somewhere between the two.
Although The Farewell is framed with the experience of a Chinese family and the differences between eastern and western views of end-of-life care are well-documented within the film, one of the reasons why it’s getting such a positive reaction from audiences is because so many of its themes are universal. The torment of a treasured family member’s cancer diagnosis, and how best to navigate it. The guilt of living far away from your parents, leaving them to potentially face their senior years alone. The mourning that accompanies not just the loss of a person, but everything that person represented within your family unit and collective memory.
Writer/director Lulu Wang deserves a great deal of credit for the sensitive, touching, and frequently funny dramatization of an event that’s clearly quite personal for her. The entire cast rise to the challenge, and the end result is a family that feels remarkably authentic, both through their complicated dynamics with one another and the thoughtfully naturalistic dialogue that is a hallmark for the entire film.
More than anything else, The Farewell cements the status of Wang as a director on the rise. And as for Awkwafina, it’s difficult to think of a more perfect film to showcase her range — most comic performers have to wait ages before they’re able to take on a role like this, and here she is knocking out Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell in the span of one year.
The Farewell really exemplifies the magic that can happen when a simple, personal story is placed in the hands of a talented cast and crew. Emotionally resonant from the beginning to the end, it is quite simply one of the best of the year.
Now if you’ll excuse us, we have to go call our grandmas.
The Farewell comes to theaters July 12, 2019. This film was reviewed at the Boston Independent Film Festival.