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THE FAREWELL (2019) review

January 27, 2020

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written by: Lulu Wang
produced by: Anita Gou, Daniele Tate Melia, Andrew Miano, Peter Saraf, Marc Turletaub, Lulu Wang, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng
directed by: Lulu Wang
rated: PG (for thematic material, brief language and some smoking)
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: July 12, 2019

 

“Chinese people have a saying, when people get cancer they die. It’s not cancer that kills them. It’s the fear.”

 

Just like every family has its secrets, every family also has its reasons for keeping those secrets. Americans don’t have the same societal reasons for keeping secrets that the Chinese may have, but that doesn’t make the other’s reasons any less valid or any more unique. The family at the center of writer/director Lulu Wang’s film “The Farewell” certainly have their reasons for keeping a secret from its matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), but they’re a hard sell on Billi (Awkwafina), her only granddaughter.

Billi moved with her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin) from China to New York City when Billi was a child, but she has maintained a close relationship with her Nai Nai. The family is now gathering for a sham wedding of Billi’s only cousin, set up in the name of seeing Nai Nai one last time before she dies, all in the name of keeping Nai Nai’s terminal cancer diagnosis from her. They have collectively decided not to invite Billi, as she will surely want to spill the beans, but the headstrong young woman makes her own way to China for what she assumes will be her last face to face visit with Nai Nai.

 

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Wang’s script and certainly its characters all have a lot to say about the cultural divide between China and America. A very effective scene late in the film allows Billi’s otherwise reserved uncle Haiban (Jiang Yongbo) a moment to pontificate on the very Chinese reasons for keeping the diagnosis from his own mother. While Billi struggles internally with the family’s decision, she is also at a seemingly endless external war with her family over it as well.

As the film’s opening states, the events in the film are “Based on an Actual Lie,” so this is no doubt Wang sorting out her own feelings on this very real decision her own family made. Film has always been great therapy for filmmakers who know how to use it as such, and Wang is clearly a master of creating personal catharsis through her characters. She is well-served by her cast, with Awkwafina showing true range and empathy as Billi, creating a three-dimensional protagonist with whom the audience can struggle alongside.

The wealth of great character actors like Tzi Ma and the marvelous Shuzhen Zhao add to the truly lived in feel of the characters. They don’t have to say a lot to convey their thoughts about their family members, but when they do speak, they offer up even greater insight into their inner lives as characters. They are a truly worthy and formidable ensemble from top to bottom.

 

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Alex Weston’s haunting score is a perfect compliment to the melancholy mood around Billi and her family. When a moment seems to call for calm, the music can be unnerving. When the moment is frantic, the music is oddly placid. It’s a wonderful element mixed into the tapestry of the film, and the universality of the human experience.

Billi’s triumphant moment in the film comes when she decides to side with her family in actually going through with keeping this secret. It’s at that moment you think of all the dumb stuff you do to stick up for your own family. The concessions we make and the secrets we keep, that’s the stuff that makes a family, whether you’re Chinese or American. At the same time, it’s a film with a sharply specific insight into Chinese life and culture. It’s universality comes in our understanding that these

Wang is, by both definition and nature, an auteur. She writes such wonderful lines of dialogue, no doubt ripped from her own family’s mouth, but she also paints such beautifully composed pictures for the audience. By the time an emotional cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” begins ringing out on the soundtrack, the tears become impossible to withhold any longer.

“The Farewell” is a beautiful film because it has a pure and loving heart beating within in it, but also because it’s expertly composed and assembled by a director with a singular vision. It conveys a sense of place and familiarity that is in short supply these days, and I look forward to whatever it is that Lulu Wang does next.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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