Published on August 21st, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, based on her real-life grandmother, brilliantly cares much more about creating a relatable, three-dimensional world than spinning an emotionally manipulative web.
The Farewell opens with a witty title card that reads: “Based on an actual lie.” Yet, the reminder of its factuality may not have been necessary; the film clearly illustrates its deeply personal nature from the very first scene. Inspired by director Lulu Wang’s own grandmother, the characterization of Nai Nai is so detailed, so organic from minute one that it immediately strikes as the kind of stuff that’s impossible to make up. Yet, once the story gets going — that of a young, Chinese-American woman and her parents who venture back to their home country to say goodbye to their Nai Nai, who is blissfully unaware of her terminal cancer — it becomes apparent that what the film really has on its mind is not just an amusing study of cultural identity, but also a truly universal philosophy about letting go, accepting what you can’t control. In this sense, the film works best when you forget that it’s a true story and are sucked into its clever and poised significations. Smartly, Wang makes that quite easy to do, avoiding the potentially painful and obvious navel-gazing a lesser film of this nature might fall into.
Awkwafina plays Billi, a relatively shy but strong willed young woman who is seen having a lively and rather cute phone conversation with her grandmother in the very first scene. She is established early as the distinctive element of Billi’s cultural heritage, the aspect of it she engages with the most. But then bad news hits; she’s dying. Last minute, Billi decides to join her parents in what initially feels like a disgusting rouse of gathering the whole family in China under the excuse of a cousins wedding to, well, say “Farewell.” The film stews in the dramatic irony of the family being in on Nai Nai’s fate while she cluelessly toils with her grandmotherly duties. She has fashioned almost a cult of personality around her that the rest of the family’s decision to keep her in the dark plays as equally selfish and compassionate; they do not wish to inflict pain and suffering on their clan, at least not publicly. To do so would ruin the family dynamic to which everyone has grown so accustomed. Conflict, spite, the airing of grievances, as one might expect, are just too unbearable, especially for the family’s beloved matriarch. What remains is classic passive aggression and feelings (mostly) shoved under the rug — you know, what a family is supposed to do.
And the film actually sustains this conflict! It doesn’t conventionally evolve as much as it just festers and spoils as the grief becomes more and more of an imminent reality; this is achieved mainly through an extremely relatable sense of humour. The comedy in The Farewell comes so organically, making you laugh not out of irony or shock but out of a universality, an observational wit that is very dedicated to poking at one’s own memories and experiences with family. Nai Nai is incredibly smarmy and self-righteous, but she’s earned it and no one even remotely wants it any other way. Awkwafina takes it down a few notches from her normal schtick, and that pays great dividends in a film in which the humour in her character comes from her often times awkward inability to hide what she is truly feeling. The cast is rounded out by some really phenomenal supporting work, all of which instill their characters with dimension and relatability, feeling genuinely lived in. And on top of it all, Wang brings a tempered but clever sensibility to her mise-en-scene, which is meticulously conceived.
The one thing I didn’t quite care for would be nearly impossible to unpack in detail without spoiling the film, and overall it doesn’t really have much of an impact on how well the movie works and adds up to more than the sum of its parts. But I’ll say this: I think Wang would’ve been better off trusting the narrative alone to signify what was on her mind instead of utilizing the dualism between the story and its real-life counterpart. The final shot, which is an update on the status of the real Nai Nai, walks back some of the emotionality of the film’s final moments. This is just my philosophical bent but I really don’t have any relationship or connection with the real Nai Nai; it’s the narrative’s take on her that is truly significant. That may seem callous, but I think it would’ve gone a long way to preserving the film’s impact if we only had an awareness of the narrative in its own vacuum.
That being said, the film is still one of the best of the year. Wang has crafted an equally hilarious and heartfelt homage to family that also works on an existential level, asking how to find meaning in death and the uncontrollable set of circumstances that we exist in. It makes these questions deeply felt by avoiding contrived melodrama, i.e. that big, clunky scene you’d expect a movie like this to have in which our protagonist epically spills the beans. I kept waiting for those moments but they never came. Instead, we have something much more sophisticated on our hands — a film that cares much more about creating a relatable, three-dimensional world than spinning an emotionally manipulative web. And in the end, you’ll cry more because you see so much of yourself and your own family in it rather than just a formulaic impression. I find that refreshing and highly commendable.