The Farewell – Film Review
by David Turpin
Directed by Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen
A calm, sincere and tender-hearted family drama, The Farewell is based in part on the real experiences of its writer-director, Lulu Wang. The story involves aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina), who learns early in proceedings that her Nai Nai (paternal grandmother) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has only a few months to live. Rather than break the painful news to her, the family have decided to keep their matriarch in the dark – to the point that they contrive a wedding for Billi’s cousin as a pretext for a final family reunion. Despite the reservations expressed by her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin), Billi travels to Changchun to join the rest of the family, but finds it impossible to reconcile herself to their deliberate dishonesty.
There are a couple of themes at work here: first, and perhaps most interestingly, Wang’s film explores the experience of a character – clearly an avatar for the director herself – who returns to the country of her birth, only to find herself an ideological stranger there. Awkwafina – heretofore best known as a comedian – underplays the part beautifully, and there’s something very compelling about watching her alternately accommodate and push back against the attitudes of her family (which are presented as being broadly analogous with a large swathe of middle-class Chinese society). One particularly telling – and brilliantly shot – scene involves a discussion of the merits and demerits of a US education, conducted around a restaurant table, with the camera apparently mounted on a lazy Susan. The scene is also welcome in that it foregrounds Lin’s performance – her clipped intensity so diametrically opposed to Awkwafina’s low-key looseness that the two are absolutely credible as a mother and daughter at loggerheads.
The film is less interesting when dealing with the central issue that emerges in the opening minutes, and doesn’t really develop over the course of the film. Indeed, the screenplay is so heavily bound up in Billi’s experience of the deceit (despite the fact that her actual position on it remains fairly stable) that it never approaches the really interesting question here – the degree to which Nai Nai (a charming, but one-note Zhao Shuzhen) is complicit in her own deception, being as the practice of withholding diagnoses from elderly relatives is shown to be far from restricted to this particular family. Weirdly, the film’s reluctance to grasp this nettle begins to feel a lot like the deception at the heart of the story: a white lie told to keep everything ticking along nicely.
And tick along nicely it does. The film is beautifully, naturalistically shot – by Anna Franquesa Solano – with a sequence in a marriage photography studio being a particular standout. Its occasional poetic flights are sometimes over-egged (there’s a symbolic bird, because even if we travel to China, an American independent dramedy must always have a symbolic bird), but one image of a remembered relative’s cigarette smoke hanging in a window has a genuinely affecting charge. The central dialectic – between American individualism and Chinese collectivism – is put across legibly, and without a heavy hand.
Still, there’s something wispy about it. Perhaps it’s the refusal to engage more rigorously with the point at which individualism tips over into self-regard. The real question is less why Billi’s family choose to conduct this charade, but why Billi can’t quite seem to see it as being about anybody but herself. Awkwafina’s subtle, interesting performance could doubtless do some heavier lifting – but the film chooses to soft-pedal, for motivations that are harder to discern than those of its characters.