Written by: Hannah Tran | July 30th, 2019
The Farewell (Lulu Wang) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Writer-Director Lulu Wang doesn’t travel far from home in her second feature film, The Farewell. This poignant story of a Chinese-American girl named Billi struggling to come to terms with her family’s decision to not tell her terminally ill grandmother of her condition is based on Wang’s own experience of her family making that same decision a few years ago. As the fictional family gathers in China for a wedding prompted as an excuse to spend time with the dying matriarch, Wang modestly explores the differences between Chinese and American perceptions of medical and spiritual health, the immigrant experience, and, most importantly, what familial love looks like.
Lulu Wang’s confident direction guides us through this generational and geographical, traversing through its complex cultural landscape with simplistic ease. Every shot within it has an elegant ornateness to it that perfectly nods to the look and feel of its Chinese backdrop. From the screenplay to the cinematography to the direction, every beat of this movie could be described as “gentle” only in the most complimentary way. This further extends to the performances.
Rising star Awkwafina proves that she can do more than her normal shtick when given more emotional legroom. Her interpretation of Billi is delicately embedded with an unusual capacity for both empathy and natural kindness even in her most morally confused state. She is relatable in every movement. The supporting cast matches her elevated performance. Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother is an absolute standout, especially when directly across her onscreen granddaughter. Everyone within this seems to be exactly on the same page, each actor filling the scenes with a generous amount of somber emotion and a hilariously distinct sense of humor that plays with the distinct cultural differences amongst them.
This cultural clash is not only extremely realistic, but it is also extremely nuanced. Wang never pushes any of the character’s perspectives as morally correct but only as culturally different. The central conflict is not merely presented as a generational difference but ultimately as a geographical difference. The clash between the idea of Chinese collectivism and American individualism is a struggle that I immediately connected to and is one that I suspect many American-raised children of immigrants experience. Exemplified through the funeral of a family gathering being veiled by the awkward premise of a wedding, The Farewell juggles with the mature Chinese perceptions of familial duty and the complicated cycle of life in a way I’ve never seen on an American theatre screen.
While Lulu Wang may have based this film on her personal experience, The Farewell transcends individual experience and cultural boundaries to provide a heart-wrenching look into the broader ideas of familial duty, love, and personal sacrifice. It’s simple, and it’s simply excellent.