The difference between eastern and western culture is larger than the distance between the United States and China. No matter their differences, wanting the best for your family is a universal language that all cultures can understand. Based on an actual lie, writer and director Lulu Wang’s latest film, The Farewell brings both cultures together in one of the best drama-comedies of the year. Awkwafina stars as a struggling New York artist who travels back to China to see her ailing grandmother, but her grandmother isn’t aware that she is sick. Spoilers after the trailer.
A Story Worth Telling
Loosely based on writer and director Lulu Wang’s life experiences, The Farewell is a film that examines the way that we think about being the bearer of bad news. Billi Wang (Awkwafina) is an inspiring Chinese-American writer who has a close relationship with her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), and finds out from her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) that her grandmother has terminal lung cancer. In Chinese culture when someone has a terminal illness you do not tell them because the stress and worrying will kill them before the illness does.
The immigrant family comes to terms with the cultural differences between America and China as they know that in America it wouldn’t be as easy, ethical or legal to hide the illness from Nai Nai. The Wangs fly back to China under the guise of a wedding for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han). Billi’s parents do not want her to come to China because she’ll be the one family member that ends up telling Nai Nai that she has terminal lung cancer.
It’s interesting to see the lengths the family will go through to not tell Nai Nai that she’s sick. They faked a whole wedding just for the family to gather in one place. The dynamic between the family members who’ve moved to America and the ones that have stayed in Japan or China creates a combustible element as they argue about the differences of opinion on the issue. The side of the family that lives in China is pro not telling her, per tradition and the American side of the family are pro telling her.
The film isn’t bleak at all. There are genuinely hilarious moments as the family interacts with each other. Nai Nai is a witty character for her advanced age. The family members all have their roles within the film but they never feel like tropes or character types. Knowing that Nai Nai did the same thing when her husband was sick, makes you realize that this is her culture and we do not have the right to judge.
A Breakout Hit
As far as direction goes, this is one of the best shot films of the year. The whole film is composed of well made shots that if you were to pause the film you could spot all types of details in the background. Throughout the film, the colors blue, green and pink are present, which could add to a hidden subtext in the film. Knowing the psychology of color does leave things open for interpretation but blue is the color of peace, green is the color of growth, and pink is the color of unconditional love. This may mean that Nai Nai is at peace as her family grows and loves her unconditionally.
Stories like these do not get told often on the big screen, which is why it’s refreshing to see a story told this way. While making the film, Lulu was told by American and Chinese producers that she needed a white lead for the film to be financed; however a film about an Asian family DOES NOT need any whitewashing to be successful which The Farewell proves.
After being called out for using a “blaccent” in 2018’s hit Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina has a breakout performance in The Farewell. She doesn’t use a blaccent in the film and comes off as genuine, sincere and just being herself. Her relationship with Nai Nai felt authentic and she played the part of someone trying to balance clashing cultures well. This continues the streak of comedic actors elevating their performances when it comes to acting in a drama.
Lulu Wang’s second feature film is a beautifully shot, well written story and I’m looking forward to the next project that she is working on. With awards season approaching, expect The Farewell among the Best Picture nominees and Best Director. The film is only 98 minutes long, but there isn’t a moment that feels as if it’s spinning its wheels. Awkwafina’s performance should lead to her having more leading roles in the near future and it shows that she can be more than a goofy side character. The big takeaway from the film is that we shouldn’t judge other customs and cultures because they’re doing what’s best for their family members. The ending of the film shows the real Nai Nai and she’s alive six years after the events of the film take place, and that’s a true happy ending.
[All Mames Wey]
The Farewell was released in theaters nationwide on July 12, 2019.
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