Review: The Farewell

Farewell posterSmall, independent film projects can be mixed bag. Said projects are often the pursuit of people who lack industry experience, and the quality of the finished product can suffer as a result; yet there is the occasional person whose talent is so immense that they can overcome their limited resumé to craft a truly surprising picture.

Billie (Awkwafina) is a twenty-something New Yorker who shares a close relationship with her Chinese grandmother, who she affectionately refers to as Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). The two women will often have long telephone conversations, relaying to each other the news in their part of the world – in Nai Nai’s case, Changchun province. These chats prove difficult for Billie, who is struggling to live independently and doesn’t want to burden Nai Nai with bad news.

It’s a situation Billie’s extended family are similarly faced with, since Nai Nai has just been diagnosed with cancer – there has been a collective agreement not to inform the matriarch of her terminal illness in the hope she will naively, happily live-out her final years. But the family also want to say their final goodbyes, and so fly to China under the pretence of a wedding to visit Nai Nai one last time.

The Farewell heralds the directorial debut of Lulu Wang who, like the main protagonist of her movie, is a Chinese-American woman; additionally, the screenplay is based on the experiences of her own family, including her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. Although it’s a very personal film with deep connections to the Chinese experience, Wang’s script is also highly resonant, speaking to universal experiences of hardship, kin and mortality.

One of the most fascinating elements of The Farewell is the central conflict involving Nai Nai. The dilemma about her cancer diagnosis makes for a brilliant conversation-starter, and shall undoubtedly leave moviegoers debating what they would do in the same scenario. Additionally, it’s the kind of conflict where both sides of the argument can be identified with – there’s never any sense that either the pro-wedding or anti-wedding stance is unethical.

Also mesmerising is The Farewell’s display of Chinese language and culture. The dialogue is bilingual, with characters speaking both English and Mandarin – the latter is uttered quite frequently for an American production, to the point where is could almost be considered a “foreign” film. What’s more, because much of the story takes place in Changchun, Western viewers gain an insight into some of the more bemusing customs of China.

The majority-Chinese cast is great too, particularly the revelatory performance from Awkwafina. Having previously had a career as a rapper, and gained comedic supporting roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, this picture marks Awkwafina’s first time as a lead actress, a part she is perfectly suited for – her sincere and occasionally raw portrayal of Billie demonstrates a level of talent many thespians could only dream of mustering.

Similarly, The Farewell boasts two other female performers with a richness that defies their limited bodies of work. Zhao Shuzhen makes her acting debut as a sweet, doting figure in Nai Nai, occupying her role with ease; then there’s Chinese-Australian actress Diana Lin, who gives a more pained and sullen effort as Billie’s mother, Lu Jian that is no less impressive. Expect to see some Awards Buzz for all three women in the months ahead.

What most astonishes about The Farewell is how pleasant an experience it is. Although the picture’s conflict is quite morbid, events never become harrowing or difficult to sit through, while the PG rating ensures that the content is suitable and accessible for all. In many ways, the film is quite reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation – a slow-moving, cross-cultural comedy that isn’t particularly hilarious or energetic, but does generate a sense of warmth in the viewer.

The Farewell is a superb debut from writer-director Lulu Wang that takes an otherwise difficult subject matter and turns it into a wholesome, heart-warming affair. When coupled with the astonishing performances of Zhao, Lin and Awkwafina, the film makes for one of the strongest awards contenders of 2019.

4 stars

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