“The Farewell dives straight into the deep end with authentic representation, handily revealing the infinite diversity within Chinese identity alone.”
Title: The Farewell (2019)
Director: Lulu Wang 👩🏻🇨🇳🇺🇸
Writer: Lulu Wang 👩🏻🇨🇳🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I had my first Sundance outing this year and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, partly thanks to Lulu Wang's The Farewell which easily became—and stayed—my favorite screening during the short time I was there. The Chinese American dramedy isn't Wang’s debut, as that credit goes to Posthumous (2014), a Berlin-set film featuring Brit Marling. But it's the first work of hers I’ve seen and Wang’s incredible ability to temper bleak reality with heartfelt warmth turned me into an instant fan.
Tracking the surreal, true story of Wang's family hiding a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer from her grandmother (Suzhen Zhou), the film snappily starts off with a text card: “Based on a true lie.” (Note: It’s a “true lie” you can hear for yourself on NPR’s This American Life, where Wang first brought her family’s story to light in 2016.)
A week has passed since I watched and I still can't think of a single thing to nitpick. Awkwafina’s impressive portrayal of Billi, a Chinese-born New Yorker, and the exemplary performances by veterans like Tzi Ma and Diana Lin plus newcomers alike infuse the piece with raw emotion. After all, it isn’t every screening where the post-mortem discussion by moviegoers involves asking how much you cried and at which points. (For me, it was a steady 2-hour drip that betrayed how much this movie made me feel.)
But beyond impeccable acting and scripting, the noncommittal use of visual puns surprised me with how effectively they defused fraught scenes. One comes to mind, of Billi’s father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) in ridiculous, bright red underpants passed out on the bed as a serious conversation between Billi and her mother (Diana Lin) takes place in the foreground. As with reality, heavy stuff can and often does coexist with the absurd. Wang manipulates that tricky dichotomy like putty.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The Farewell examines the precious relationship between Billi and her dying grandmother—or as Billi calls her, Nai Nai. On the other side of the lens, Wang ensures the project couldn't have come from a more female-centric place. But this careful attention extends beyond gender; branching subplots teem with complex portraits of women and men alike.
Better yet, The Farewell juggles their interwoven relationships in a tight running time of 98 minutes and never feels rushed or overfull. We witness the pain between distant brothers who haven’t seen each other in decades; pent-up resentment from Billi with her mother; quiet love from Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong, playing herself) who has tended to her older sister for years; and difficulties between couples such as Billi’s parents, who struggle with Haiyan’s past of alcohol abuse. Somehow it all comes together and results in emotional catharsis. Thankfully, tidy Hollywood endings are nowhere in sight and would have, in fact, felt forced in a work like this. During the post-screening Q&A, Wang discussed the difficulty in getting The Farewell financed without promising just that. I’m grateful she stuck to her guns and waited years to find the right partners, as the film’s realism is precisely what resonates.
After seeing this cornucopia of messy, human lives in just one movie, I have less sympathy for TV shows and movies that flatten their supporting characters with the excuse of there not being “enough time” for backstory or development. It can be done; there just needs to be the will—and, to be fair, the technical dexterity to pull it off.
The Farewell side-steps simplistic notions of “diversity” and dives straight into the deep end, handily revealing the infinite diversity within Chinese identity alone. After all, the country is huge and the city of Changchun, where the film takes place, is closer to Russia than it is to Beijing.
On this stage of local specificity, audiences watch the push and pull of different East Asians who inexorably wind up at a tragic wedding in Northern China. Although born there herself, Billi’s Americanness is never so palpable as when she describes her longing for her homeland—for being near Nai Nai and surrounded by family. Billi’s tone mourns an alternate life that was never allowed to flourish, yet even as her voice cracks as she accuses her mother of “taking her away”, she indulges a Western penchant for what her Chinese relatives might consider unseemly emotion. As her parents put it, Billi can’t dissemble worth a damn, and it’s why they didn’t want her in China to see her grandmother one last time. She’s “too American” to face Nai Nai without her gormless misery giving up the goose.
Meanwhile, Billi’s parents become reluctant mediators as the ones who have spent more than half their lives in the United States but who grew up in China and hold a more intrinsic understanding of why their family is lying to Nai Nai about having cancer. Haiyan, Billi’s father, struggles deeply with the facade in a way that reveals his own Westernness, and he’s called out on it by an Auntie (Zhang Jing) who has been in Changchun the entire time. The latter’s staunchness in keeping up the ruse represents a more traditional Chinese perspective, and through this range of opinions audiences are treated to a bevy of paths one can take to be a “good daughter” or “good son.” Is it through honesty, as Billi argues? Or is it through sharing the emotional burden so that Nai Nai never has to knowingly count down the days to her deathbed?
Beyond this onscreen excavation of filial piety, The Farewell also shows culture clash through Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen), who was also taken from Changchun by his parents, but in the other direction—to Japan. With his Japanese bride Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), the couple presents some of the film’s most humorous scenes, played simply and succinctly through the comedy of language barriers and nonverbal acting.
For example, there's nothing so entertaining as watching Billi's family gripe about Aiko in front of her as the poor girl’s face goes through a series of polite smiles, confused looks, and vague displeasure. Laughter rang throughout the theater during scenes of Hao Hao’s wretchedness on the day of his wedding. But beneath these comedic beats, the tragedy of The Farewell, of familial estrangement, comes through. After failing to keep his grief at bay, Hao Hao escapes his own wedding and Billi goes after him as they take refuge in an empty room. As Nai Nai’s grandchildren, they’re the two people who might understand each other best. But neither Billi nor Hao Hao have the proficiency to communicate in a shared language—Billi limited to English, Hao Hao to Japanese. They sit beside each other, but isolation accompanies them like a third, heavy presence.
Mediaversity Grade: A+ 5.00/5
The Farewell received a standing ovation at its premiere and was bought by A24 soon after for a solid $6-7 million. When Wang strode onstage, surrounded by a massive cast and crew that jostled against each other like the family they portrayed, a sense of the film’s importance beyond mere entertainment hummed through the theater. Wang's mother and father were in attendance, and had just watched their daughter’s deeply personal film for the first time alongside the rest of us. An audience member called out: “What did you think, mom and dad?”
A pause, before Wang’s father shouted back, “Pretty good!”