The Farewell (2019)
director: lulu wang | runtime: 100mins | comedy, drama | language: english, mandarin
When a Chinese family find out that their Grandmother is sick, they decide not to tell her. To keep it under wraps they plan a family wedding in order to keep her distracted and see her again.
“Based on an actual lie.” The simplicity of the phrase that appears on the screen is a core representation of the film that is about to follow, not just in the literal sense of Wang’s real-life attachment to the story but also how the director presents the comedy in subtle and situational ways. Based on the story Wang herself, it follows Billi (Akwafina), a charismatic New Yorker with an artistic streak, that was moved to the States from China when she was young. The film decidedly focuses on her, as well as her relationship with her non-English speaking Grandmother, Nai Nai.
While Wang makes it evidently clear how close this family is despite their geographical distance, she builds the strongest relationship between Billi and her Grandmother. Billi struggles to find her place in life, finding work is a task as well as paying her rent, while her parents continuously seem cold towards her shortcoming (especially her mother), whereas Nai Nai is just one sweet phone call away, and even though Billi’s broken Mandarin is a problem when she’s in China, it never effects the bond the film finds so easily between the two. Wang finds time to build relationships with small but genuine scenes between the two, whether it be Billi’s subtle mocking of Nai Nai’s breathing exercises, or even letting her Grandmother vent about the families shortcomings, it all feels authentic, including the performances from Akwafina and Shuzhen Zhao.
In terms of performance Akwafina is probably the standout, having more wiggle-room with her emotional outbursts and given a more present arc, as she strips down her previous comedic roles and gives a little more humanity to the loud-mouth charisma she is associated with. But the entire cast is the definition of ensemble, everyone has their moments with Nai Nai and for a film that is trying to keep-face each person cracks under the pressure of the lie. Billi’s Uncle has a slight breakdown at his son’s wedding, her cousin Hao Hao has a little too much to drink, and Billi’s Dad is continuously conflicted as much as Billi is. It’s a beautiful dynamic that fuels such a simple story into feature length, and without each character being so prominent the film could lose steam, but it finds solace in the fact that each character feels so real and attached to each moment.
One thing that’s so important to the identity of this film is in it’s two contrasting nationalities, with the director herself coming from the same background. Although an American film, The Farewell is mostly spoken in Mandarin but manages to balance, contrast and parallel both nationalities with ease. Billi feels like she lacks the identity she once grew up with, and one conflict comes from the initial lie, this idea that lying to someone about their illness is a good thing. But Billi, and her Father less so, feel this is a destructive scheme that is basically illegal. Even though this idea seems mostly alien to a Western audience, Wang is quick to give a justification to the idea with yet another deep scene of discussion between Billi and her Uncle. Wang continually tests the norms of both cultures but more importantly never makes it a contest, well aware of where she came from adding such personal detail into her film.
The comedy usually comes from the families inability to get along, but also from the bemusement of different cultures. But what Wang does so well is that every scene, as fleeting as they might seem at the time, is underscore them with such emotional levity, and a striking realisation of what the true goal is for the family. Every laugh at Chinese culture comes from a more nostalgic place because of it’s director, who controls the comedy to never mock, and give reason to it’s inclusion. Stereotypes are relatively reinforced, but in such an authentic way (Billi’s and her Mother have a particularly moving dynamic), and Wang’s appreciation of her upbringing seeps through the film making each scene feel so raw and passionate.
Whether or not you like the relatively subdued ending, it’s a beautifully optimistic part of a seemingly bleak film. But what The Farewell does is wear it’s heart on it’s sleeve, and in doing so creates authenticity in it’s representation and personal conflicts that make it feel like you’re learning while being entertained. Lulu Wang’s passionate embrace of her own identity floods every scene, and along with a cast that’s instantaneous in their chemistry, the film gives an unlikely voice to people of a similar background, but also impacts you in the most unexpected ways.