Release: 13th January 2020
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
In this funny, uplifting tale based on an actual lie, Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch, Nai-Nai, has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself. To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad. As Billi navigates a minefield of family expectations and proprieties, she finds there’s a lot to celebrate: a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child, her grandmother’s wondrous spirit, and the ties that keep on binding even when so much goes unspoken. With The Farewell, writer/director Lulu Wang has created a heartfelt celebration of both the way we perform family and the way we live it, masterfully interweaving a gently humorous depiction of the good lie in action with a richly moving story of how family can unite and strengthen us, often in spite of ourselves.
The Farewell is a potent and whimsical example of why Western audiences do not need every single film they see to be representative of them and their own experiences. Filmed mostly in China, with over 80% of its dialogue in Mandarin, The Farewell would in any other circumstance be ordained a ‘foreign film’ and relegated to the abyss of Netflix. Instead, it has for the most part received wide acclaim and been embraced as an outstanding piece of American cinema…..[although, it did qualify for the foreign language category at the Golden Globes].
Director Lulu Wang is a refreshing talent. Her angles are daring, her framing purposefully off centre. She plays with metaphor without becoming pretentious, and her dialogue is intentionally erratic and repetitious. She is cut from the same cloth as, say, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola and Alexander Payne. Wang truly has the spirit of an independent filmmaker. And the fact that she has been ignored for an Oscar nomination here is truly a disappointment.
As The Farewell is based on Wang’s own life experience, there is little wonder why each scene feels so rich with subtext and life. Every glance and movement has a history. Many things are seen, but not all things are explored. For example, in a moment where Billi, arriving uninvited, tries to sidle up to her mother; with a hug against her back, and a head on the shoulder; there is a truth evident that is comfortable with itself. One that feels as though it has played out a thousand times before. A mother at once annoyed and disappointed, but also overcome with an inability to resist the rare closeness with her only child. We see it and we feel it, but we don’t need to have it explained or commented on. It just is. And this is the strength of The Farewell. It is a film that feels lived in.
It is also the level of familiarity with the world Wang creates that has allowed her to cast some great actors. Awkwafina may have walked away with the Golden Globe, but it is Shuzhen Zhao who steals the show as Nai Nai. In this utterly endearing portrayal, Zhao depicts a woman who is fiercely independent and brimming with love. She is a tour de force of ticks, tuts and “stupid child”’s, but never once does she come across as anything other than adorable. She might be Billi’s Nai Nai (an affectionate Mandarin term for Grandmother), but it is hard to watch The Farewell without wanting to claim her as our own.
Film Grade: A-
Two intimate interviews take up the lion’s share of the special features on offer. Both are enlightening and enjoyable, but give little insight in to the process of the film’s production; which is a shame when you learn about the uphill struggle Wang faced to get the film made.
Special Features Grade: C+
Sweeter than a Bourbon biscuit and full of pep. The Farewell is a film filled with sentimentality, yet it oddly chooses never to get too mushy.