Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, X Mayo, Lu Hong, Lin Hong, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Yang Xuejian, Becca Khalil, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang, Liu Hongli, Zhang Shiming, Zhang Jing, Liu Jinhang
PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking,
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
American audiences have become so accustomed to cinema that caters to their cultural standards that being exposed to other nations’ traditions can be a bit of a shock. With The Farewell, not only do viewers get an education in the Chinese customs surrounding death, they also come to understand how Americanized immigrants can be confused by the same, being so far removed from their own heritage.
Awkwafina plays Billi a young Chinese American writer struggling to find her place in the world both as an artist and as a human being. A rejection letter from the Guggenheim Fellowship in hand, Billi’s parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) have further bad news as her paternal grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Although initially forbidden from returning to China to see her, Billi makes the trip anyway, as have myriad other family members, all under the guise of attending a cousin’s wedding. Not permitted to tell Nai Nai of her impending doom, Billi must contend with her Americanized cultural identity and her native one, each competing to do what’s best for her and for Nai Nai.
Lulu Wang’s second feature film, her first in five years, is a wonderful character study exposing American audiences to the cultural dynamics that exist in China and how different they are from Western traditions. Her assured hand guides the film across numerous interpersonal interactions keeping them light and airy while the pervasive sense of dread permeates it all. It takes a deft hand to tackle a drama with such weighty concepts at play and Wang does so quite successfully.
All of the performers in the film convey the heavy fatalistic mood underlying faked excitement all in an effort to create an environment in which suspicion isn’t a concern even though the demeanors on display suggest otherwise. Either Nai Nai is perfectly ambivalent to the machinations going on around her, including a doctor’s visit where she’s told by a physician that she’s completely fine in spite of knowing the truth himself, or she suspects the truth, but doesn’t want her family to worry that she knows and that won’t be able to live her fullest life. The truth of her knowledge is never fully addressed, but we are led to believe that she never becomes suspicious even though her late-film interaction with Billi would indicate elsewise.
Among the cast, the clear standouts are star Awkwafina, who delivers a strong performance of a young woman who is never quite able to hide her grief, but always finds the right way to avoid detection while still suffering greatly. When she confronts the same doctor about the truth and whether her grandmother deserves to know more, he conveys to her with a careful hand why it’s imperative not to ruin the traditions that have served them all so well in spite of his own American education. She’s not just the manic character she’s played previously in films like Crazy Rich Asians and that dichotomy helps showcase her skill as an actress and the long-term potential she likely has in the industry.
Shuzhen is a petite force in the film issuing forth barbs of pointed wisdom and conveying to the audience her zeal for life and the kind of personality that it makes sense others would not want to dampen. While her family frets around her, she continues living her best life with morning exercises and other endeavors to help her keep spry.
While the film ends on a hopeful, but low-key note, we’re left to experience the wonderful, full narrative that is modestly reminiscent of what Wayne Wang did with The Joy Luck Club in 1993. While the film is worth watching just to get a better understanding of the subtle, but potent differences between myriad cultures around the world, it’s also a skillfully crafted and warm look at cultural identity as well as the ability to mourn and celebrate in equal and compelling ways.
Probables: Original Screenplay
Potentials: Picture, Directing, Actress (Awkwafina), Supporting Actress (Shuzhen Zhao)
December 12, 2019