A good drama is measured in its emotional moments, and what impression they leave on the viewer. This requires the film to construct convincing characters, an interesting storyline, and space for the viewer to find some sense of poignancy in its central theme.
The Farewell manages this with flying colours.
The film concerns itself with Billie, a young Chinese-American woman who returns to her homeland of China to attend the wedding of her cousin. In reality, the wedding is a ruse, constructed so that the family can gather to bid farewell to the matriarchal Grandmother, Nai Nai, who has cancer. The twist is that they have not, and will not, tell her about her diagnoses in fear of making her upset.
From the outset, the film presents a theme of conflict. This could be between Billie and her parents, who seek to control aspects of her life or the internal conflict that members of the family feel when speaking to Nai Nai. Billie constantly questions the decision not to tell her, with the response being that it rests on Chinese cultural traditions. This feeds into another area of conflict, a cultural one. Despite having grown up in China, Billie is ingrained in American culture. Her Mandarin is not as good as her relatives and she gazes upon the rapidly expanding Changchun with a childlike wonder.
As central themes go, it is incredibly profound and contextually poignant, helped more so by the fact that the film explores it wonderfully. As the action unfurled, I found myself questioning whether or not I would act similarly in Billie’s situation, looking upon the more sentimental and traditional aspects of the family’s life with a strange nostalgia. It forced me to recall the strange things my family does when they meet, harkening back to meals around the table and nights filled with endless laughter, of which the film contains both.
The performances are outstanding. Awkwafina completely sheds the comedic internet personality for which she gained acclaim and effortlessly slips into Billie’s shoes. She is subtle, emotional and believable as the emotionally torn protagonist, helped by a show-stopping turn from Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai. The scenes when the two are on screen were electric, as their palpable chemistry and witty back-and-forth lit up the screen.
The film also looks fantastic. Lulu Wang has taken the utmost care in presenting her directorial vision, resulting in a colourful, vibrant and well-composed cinematographic palette. More often than not, she made a bold decision in how she presented the on-screen action, which paid off every time. There is also good use of music. Look out for a rendition of Harry Nillson’s ‘Without You’ in Mandarin.
At the least, The Farewell will make you want to call your grandmother. At the most, it will make you treasure those around you and your fondest memories because you never know when they will sadly pass away.