THE FAREWELL Understands the Joys of Reunions and the Pains of Goodbyes
Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch, Nai-Nai, has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself. To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad.
Directors: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lim, Lu Hong
Country: United States
Language: English, Mandarin
Runtime: 98 minutes
With all the residual buzz of Asian representation in Hollywood from last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell (2019) is delving into similar tensions between Western and Eastern cultures. The film has already garnered much attention in the States after its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is finally making its way to Singapore screens.
Billi (Awkwafina) finally returns to her childhood home to see her cancer-stricken grandmother, whom Billi affectionately calls Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). However, the whole family insists upon keeping her beloved Nai Nai in the dark about the gravity of her own medical condition by visiting under the guise of a marriage. Believing that her Nai Nai has the right to say goodbye, Billi finds herself at odds with such a practice and has to reconcile it with her family.
Awkwafina’s quirky and loveable role in Crazy Rich Asians raises high hopes for her leading performance in The Farewell, a film that takes on a more poignant tone. As the favoured grandchild who wears her heart on her sleeve, she manages to bring the same comic relief needed to dispel the constant fog of gloominess that necessarily pervades the film. She shines more in scenes that allows her to be a playful and loving granddaughter. Solemn scenes sometimes leave more to be desired, but since her character allows her to be an open book without need for much depth, Awkwafina’s overall performance is still commendable.
With The Farewell inspired by Lulu Wang’s own grandmother and revolving around Nai Nai, Zhao Shuzhen’s act as the central matriarch is put into the spotlight. And with Nai Nai being sharp about everything but her own illness, Zhao delivers her role remarkably, exuding astuteness in light of situations even in her cluelessness. Her grandmotherly warmth is familiar and intuitive, allowing her to draw laughter in her steadfastly independent character even as we are constantly reminded of her mortality.
With both leads set as bulwarks against the solemnity that threatens to overwhelm The Farewell, it is no wonder that the film’s strength lies in its ability to inject humour even in serious revelations and conversations. Most of the humour is based upon the accurate rendering of situations that would be close to the heart of a local audience – from awkward family reunions, to comparisons of children’s education, and even to the terms of endearment used. Careful framing of shots and clever writing allows multiple events to happen at the same time, amplifying the hilarity of having polar opposite moods playing out on screen.
That being said, The Farewell can be pretty slow in its pace, choosing to dwell on conversations and emotions instead of having an action-packed movie. There were a number of scenes that felt needless in terms of adding more to the mood.
Perhaps due to the targeted American audience, a lot of things were spelled out quite explicitly too, with a whole scene being dedicated to explaining the differences between the Eastern and the Western mindsets. The Farewell is premised upon double entendres that mean one thing to the unknowing Nai Nai and another to the knowing audience, especially meaningful if one is aware of insinuations alluding to Chinese traditions. Even so, the film is quite on the nose about explaining these nuances.
But The Farewell is undoubtedly easy to watch, guaranteeing tears and laughter with its heartwarming look into family life and Chinese traditions. While exposing Hollywood to an intimate aspect of Chinese reunions and practices, The Farewell provides a tender portrayal that abides truthfully to authenticity and also ensures that the emotions are not lost on the universal audience.
You can catch The Farewell in cinemas now. Get a taste of it in the trailer below: