The Farewell is a funny, poignant, and ultimately uplifting dramedy that contrasts Chinese and Western cultural values when a New York-based Chinese family return to the homeland to farewell the beloved terminally ill matriarch, who is unaware of her grim diagnosis.
The Farewell, writer-director Lulu Wang’s terrific second feature, almost wasn’t made (this interview refers). Her initial financial backers, the American box office foremost in their considerations, insisted on her including a white character in a major role. Wang refused to “whitewash” the film, which is based on her own family experience, and the money evaporated.
Happily, she eventually prevailed, funded by new backers. The first lot may end up kicking themselves. By prioritising authenticity over bottom-line strategizing, Wang has come up with the feelgood film of the year. If there’s any justice this will translate to box office success not only in the West, but very possibly in the huge Chinese market.
The casting of rapper/comedian/actor Awkwafina in the lead role is a masterstroke. She plays thirtyish New Yorker Billi, child of Chinese immigrant parents, who flies to the homeland for a family reunion. The occasion for the getogether is purportedly a family wedding, but actually to farewell the feisty family matriarch, Billi’s beloved grandmother, or “Nai Nai” (played by the delightful Shuzhen Zhao), who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Awkwafina does a fine job of her emotionally demanding role, but more than that, she functions as a link between Western and Chinese culture.
Billi’s Mandarin is dodgy, and she struggles with aspects of Chinese culture – such as her parents’ and extended family’s decision not to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis. Her view, which would no doubt be shared by most Westerners, is that withholding the diagnosis denies Nai Nai the opportunity to come to terms with her impending death, and amounts to a betrayal. The family, however, insists that they should take on the burden of the diagnosis on Nai Nai’s behalf, allowing her to live out her remaining days free of fear and anxiety. Further, they reference a Chinese belief that it is fear that kills, not terminal disease.
While the film never lapses into sentimentality, there is much pathos in Billi’s position, as she fights to keep her emotions in check in front of Nai Nai, and her anger controlled when with other family members.
It is only when she conveys her torment to a young oncologist reviewing Nai-Nai’s scans at the hospital that she starts to reconcile her position. Having studied in the US, he too has a foot in both worlds, which gives him credibility when he takes the family’s side, explaining that their attitude is shared by most Chinese families. For the first time, Billi – and we – begin to accept that cultural perceptions that seem perversely at variance with ours can be equally valid.
This sounds like ponderous existential stuff, but under Wang’s direction and writing, done full justice by a universally excellent cast, the film is kept light-hearted. And indeed, the humour in the setup – and there is plenty – is fully exploited without ever turning black. Most importantly, the film is informed by a lovely humanity. The family dynamics on display here are cross-cultural and thus relatable for all audiences. And yes, the sense of authenticity so important to Wang is here in abundance, as well it might be, since much of the content of the film is apparently autobiographical. So often, material from real life does not adapt well to dramatic format, but Wang and her cast have pulled off the transition to screen with aplomb.
The Farewell is the surprise feel-good treat of the year – some feat for a film built around a terminal diagnosis. Miss it, and you’ll be missing something special.
Movie Website: https://a24films.com/films/the-farewell
Australian release date: The Farewell screening in Perth at Luna Cinema, Leederville from Thursday, 5 September.
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