Watching The Farewell is like being embraced in a huge, warm hug, one that protects you from all the Brexits and Trumps and climate catastrophes of our world, a hug you’ll never want to end. Lulu Wang’s second feature film is a strong contender for the most wholesome film of the year, providing the strong dosage of warm escapism many of us will probably be craving right now. A tenderly told story of a family shaken by a shocking medical diagnosis, forcing them to reconvene for the first time in years, The Farewell pulsates with a subtly biting sense of humour and instantly loveable characters, driven by a powerhouse performance from Awkwafina in her breakout dramatic role.
“Based on a real lie” reads the film’s opening text, and what a lie it is. Adapted from Wang’s autobiographical story that she first told on an episode of This American Life back in 2016, the film follows Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling wanna-be writer in New York who discovers that her Nai Nai (“Grandma” in Mandarin) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and that a fake wedding has been organised back in China so that everyone can spend time with her before she passes away. The crucial issue though is that a decision has been made not to tell Nai Nai about her condition, which Billi is angered by and which becomes a source of huge debate within the family as they reconvene for the wedding.
While the story may sound dark and more than a little depressing, what Wang does so masterfully is to consistently balance the intense issues surrounding Nai Nai’s diagnosis with the film’s lighter moments, injecting bursts of well-balanced (and very well-observed) comedy at crucial times to prevent the whole affair from straying too far into darkness. This balancing act is pulled off to great success, thanks, in large part, to Zhao Shuzhen’s performance as Nai Nai, making her US film debut at 75 years young.
Having acted since the age of 16 in China, and become a household name there, Shuzhen is truly the heart of the film, not just in terms of the film’s narrative but also as the center of the family, the core that holds them all together. Vivacious, whip smart, and full of nuggets of wisdom, she provides many of the film’s big laughs, whether hounding Billi about the marriage potential of a young English-speaking doctor, haranguing the wedding planners about the lack of lobster on the menu, or teaching Billi her “unique” exercise routine.
Speaking of Billi, Awkwafina is also excellent as the emotionally torn central character struggling to come to terms with the family’s collective lie and whether she should take it on herself to tell Nai Nai the truth. Having previously forged a career as a rapper and landed supporting roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, she seems right at home here in her first lead role, and has the potential to be a surprise winner come awards season. Supporting performances from Tzi Ma and Diana Lin as Billi’s parents, and a deeply touching turn from Lu Hong as Nai Nai’s younger sister (who is Lulu Wang’s real-life great aunt), make for a family dynamic that is at once both fully convincing, completely captivating, and utterly lovable.
As both the film’s writer and director, Lulu Wang’s screenplay is also pivotal in bringing her family’s story to the screen with a vital infusion of wit and charm. Wang’s biggest skill is in writing sharp, naturalistic dialogue that feels truly authentic and fresh, and is hugely important in building up the fleshed-out characters of the film. Beyond the basic storyline there are a number of interesting issues that Wang touches upon throughout, including the issue of how to stay loyal to your family while seeking your own place in the world, and how to appreciate and consolidate cultural differences, especially when they threaten to divide your family and throw up key moral conundrums.
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell will be an important film for so many people and in so many different ways: Hopefully it will be looked back on as a key step in the push for more Asian representation in Western cinema; perhaps it will provide an important emotional outlet for people suffering from familial grief; maybe it will even start a discussion about the importance of understanding and appreciating other people’s cultures (regardless of our surface-level differences).
But away from all of these extremely important talking points, The Farewell is, at its heart, an affectionately made love-letter to a tempestuous but ultimately tight-knit family, and the matriarchal figure holding them all together. For everything that is happening in the world right now, this is the perfect remedy.