Following her debut 2014 romantic dramedy “Posthumous”, Chinese filmmaker Lulu Wang sophomore film “The Farewell” continues her quirky traits merged with deep characters, and the film holds many great influences that consist of Sofia Coppola, early Ang Lee, and Yasujiro Ozu that nevertheless taps into deep characterizations, family dynamics, with engaging characters and human pathos.
In “The Farewell”, actress and comedian Awkafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s Eight) stars as Billi, a lonely young woman who was born in China but grew up in New York City, who is approaching 30 that is still trying to puzzle her life together. Billi ends up traveling back to her native country after she discovers her beloved grandmother she calls Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with severe cancer, in which medical experts anticipate she only has a few months to live.
This generates tension within Billi’s parents and other family members as the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her terminal diagnosis. The entire family decide to band together to hangout with Nai Nai in her last months by using the pretext of arranging a marriage between one of Billi’s estranged cousins (a young man who doesn’t seem to enthusiastic about getting married during the inevitable turmoil).
Writer-director Wang uses a lot of deep characterizations and impressive character depth here. There is something always heartbreaking and melancholy about coming to terms with death with the people that we hold close to use. Wang also examines the questionable and ethical stratagem of deceiving the people we love about the true nature of their health, that is legal in China.
Billi is very conflicted how she is going to approach being deception to her own severely ill grandmother, yet she continues on with the lie as it truly undermines her conscience inside. What begins as something emotionally bleak ends up becoming lighter and even funner as it never departs away from its center story on grief, family complexities, insecurities, and loneliness. Its commanding how Wang doesn’t get too boggled down by melodrama or lazy sentiment, sure one will be moved and many will cry, yet there is something deeply personal and honest about the material that it never feels manipulating or false.
“The Farewell” doesn’t offer any real surprises. The movie is mapped out for us from the start. However one can’t deny just how moving and compassionate the movie is. Lulu Wang succeeds here because it offers us the unconventional and restraint with what would be cloying in the wrong hands. Awkafina, though quirky and funny with her raspy voice and idiosyncratic mannerisms still touches a chord without being forced with easy laughs. A great moment in the film has Billy talking about her childhood growing up as tears rolls down her face that is nothing short of authentic.
“The Farewell” would have even been a greater film had it stayed more true to its ethereal and atmospheric mood that it hints at over the preciousness that overtakes and overruns it, take for instance the closing “Lost in Translation” style poetic imagery as the family drives away as they move past the buildings of he landscapes of China, a sentimental song plays over the luminous imagery, almost robbing away the greater potential it could have had.
There is also a few setbacks in the film too, the muted bride of the cousin, the whip pan of the family doing a chicken dance that feels like it belongs in a different movie, and some of the overtly cuteness of the grandmother get a little abundant at times. Yet Wang still handles the material very maturely and confidently with honest insights, perhaps because the story is based on her own experiences of her family keeping their grandmother keeping their grandmother in the dark about her health, and you can’t deny how personal the film is. Like Joanna Hogg’s greatly superior and masterfully made “The Souvenir” (4 stars out of 4), this is another deeply intimate and personal film that many will identity and resonate with.