Lulu Wang’s directorial debut is a grief-stricken masterpiece
Artistically driven and well-executed “The Farewell” is one of the most powerful movies of the year, if not one of the best movies of 2019.
“It’s a good lie. Most families in China would not tell her.”
This line from “The Farewell”, spoken by the dying Nai Nai’s cancer specialist, is an accurate portrayal of the central theme of the movie, which takes an in-depth look at the differences between Eastern and Western culture.
More specifically, the film takes a very real, very sincere look at grief, and how people deal with it in different parts of the world.
Independent production company A24, known for standouts such as “Moonlight”, “Lady Bird” and countless others, has already had an impressive year.
A lot of fans are looking at Ari Aster’s breakout horror masterpiece, “Midsommar”, as the company’s best movie of 2019.
However, after “The Farewell” hit theaters on July 12, and despite its limited U.S. release, those same fans are starting to reconsider their early predictions.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-born, American citizen living and trying to work in New York City. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) moved from China to the United States when Billi was very young, with the hopes that the “land of opportunities” would bring nothing but the best for their daughter.
For the most part, their move has proven successful. However, Billi is struggling to find her footing as an independent writer and still must rely on her parents for things like laundry and the occasional meal.
One night after dinner with her parents, Billi finds her father in his bedroom, distraught and crying. He has just received word that his mother, Billi’s grandmother, has been diagnosed with cancer. Billi insists that she travel home to China with her parents, but they are adamant that she remains in New York to focus on her studies.
Naturally, Billi ends up in China unannounced, and much to the dismay of her entire extended family. They had devised a plan to stage a fake wedding so they could all see their beloved grandmother one last time, and so it didn’t look suspicious as to why they were visiting.
No one in the family wants to tell grandma, affectionately referred to as “Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao),” that she has cancer. Rather than worrying and making arrangements for her death, the family wants Nai Nai to enjoy the time on Earth she still has.
The remainder of the film is dedicated to awkward, hilarious, and heart-wrenching moments. Billi struggles with the idea that her Nai Nai is dying while ignorant to the fact of what ails her. Audience members get a very real look at how this grief is handled amongst different cultures.
The members of the family that have lived in China all their lives simply accept the fact that they’re going to lie to Nai Nai until she dies; this has always been customary to them. Billi, however, who grew up mostly experiencing Western culture, struggles with this throughout the film. It is very interesting, as well as a firsthand look at how something as universal as death is experienced differently in the West versus the East.
The story itself is unique and captivating and, according to the tagline before the film, “based on a true lie.” It is genuinely a funny movie, especially considering the circumstances around which it revolves, and has great comedic timing.
On the other hand, it is truly a story of grief and one that hits hard with almost any audience member.
Another interesting aspect of the story is the rapidly dynamic character arcs, especially that of Billi. Her world view and perception of life and death are changed dramatically after spending a month hiding a secret from her unaware grandmother.
Awkwafina, who saw her Hollywood stock grow after the success of” Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), is outstanding in her first leading role. Portraying someone in her situation– one of grief, distress and helplessness– is not easy to pull off. Her performance is even more impressive for such a young and relatively inexperienced actress.
Without all the raw and intelligent emotion she brings to the screen, the film may have turned out very differently.
Although the story is impressive and Awkwafina shines, it is the fact that “The Farewell” is the major directorial debut of Lulu Wang that stands out as the film’s best strength.
It’s not just her keen ability on knowing when to be funny and when to be emotional that makes the movie so successful, but it is the nature in which she directs. Essentially, rather than employing flashy and overused methods that the industry is moving towards, Wang focuses on using raw and emotional techniques to tell her story.
She pulls this off primarily with long, uncut sequences of powerful dialogue, while also mixing in scenes that are quiet and full of camera movement; allowing the cinematography to get the point across.
For example, Billi and Nai Nai talk off-screen for a solid two to three minutes while the camera stays focused and unmoving on the uncomfortable “bride” and “groom.” In contrast, a scene of the family eating dinner in silence while the camera intercuts between members brings the tension that their lie has created to the forefront.
Overall, I would say “The Farewell” was emotionally impacting due to the strength of the story and the intelligence of the direction. It may not necessarily be the movie for everyone, but for someone looking for an example of strong filmmaking, I would highly recommend this film.