BAMcinemaFest 2019 Review: ‘The Farewell’

The Farewell | Lulu Wang | BAMcinemaFest 2019 & July 12, 2019

It’s always tough to say goodbye to a loved one, but even tougher when you have to lie to your loved one without getting to say a proper goodbye in order to keep the truth of the illness from them. This isn’t something that is common in America, but something more common in Eastern regions such as China, as seen in director Lulu Wang’s heartbreaking drama The Farewell.

Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American struggling to get by in New York City, who still maintains a great relationship with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou). She is heartbroken to learn to find out from her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that her Nai Nai (Chinese for paternal grandmother) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and that the family is keeping the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai.

The family plans to fly in to visit Nai Nai for potentially one last time, disguised as a wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), his new Japanese girlfriend of only a few months. The only issue is the family wants Billi to stay back in New York, as she is not known to keep her emotions buried, afraid that Nai Nai would immediately sense that something was wrong.

When the rest of the family arrives in China, Billie doesn’t want to let the chance of seeing her grandmother one last time slip away and hops on a plane to join the rest of the family on their visit, despite their wishes for her to stay back. Upon arrival, it becomes a balancing act of enjoying the remaining time with her grandmother and trying to keep this emotional secret buried deep within.

Wang, who based the screenplay on the same real-life situation with her own grandmother, seamlessly blends the cultural differences between the East and the West as seen through the eyes of Billi as an Asian American. Billi can’t grasp why the family would keep this from her beloved Nai Nail, but in one of the film’s many touching scenes, we learn from her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), it’s the family’s responsibility to bear the burden of the pain for the grandmother so she can try and enjoy her remaining days as much as possible.

What’s so impressive is the way that Wang allows you to see both sides and understand and have empathy for everyone’s view on the undeniably tough and complicated situation. She so wonderfully and thoughtfully navigates these differences between American and Chinese worldviews, never treating one as better or worse than the other, but rather as equals.

Known for her comedic presence, the performance from Awkwafina is revelatory, showing great dramatic range and leading the charge in a thoughtful and emotional manner. But her comedic chops come into play throughout the film which also welcomes in plenty from the world of comedy to help find a good balance of joy with the constant melancholic sadness (perfectly captured for the screen by cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano) that slowly but surely chips away at your heart. In that sense, it reminds of films like Manchester By The Sea, which embrace a dark sense of humor brilliantly to contrast the knowing heartbreak and drama that lay ahead.

The Farewell is an achievement in every sense of the word from Lulu Wang who pours her heart and soul into the film. You can tell it comes from a personal place for the director, who places into the caring hands of Awkwafina and the rest of the cast which features equally effective turns from its all-Chinese cast of Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhao, Jiang Yongbo, and Chen Han. Every detail and line of dialogue comes from great care of compassion and care that all adds up to find a great balance between laughs and tears, just as we do in everyday life.

Quite simply, The Farewell is one of the best films you’ll see all year.

Rating: 9.0/10

The Farewell opens BAM’s 2019 Cinemafest on June 12th.