The Farewell (2019)
Dir: Lulu Wang
‘This American Life’ has so far been the source of one of my favourite podcasts in ‘Serial’, one of my favourite musicals with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ’21 Chump Street’, and now this, one of my favourite films of last year.
Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) is deliberately kept in the dark about her doctor’s results by her family, who deliberately withhold her terminal diagnosis from as culturally it’s believed that knowing the prognosis is what will kill her. To facilitate the family traveling home to China en-masse from across the globe, they arrange a wedding as cover, a ruse that brings back New York-raised granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), the sole dissenting voice who wants to tell her grandmother the truth.
I’d heard good things about this for a while before I saw it, apparently from its debut at Sundance which was a great success in creating critical buzz and securing distribution with A24, the source of many notable films in recent years. Watching this late one night with a friend it delivered what I’d heard, uplifting, funny, and touching in all the right ways.
I didn’t realize this was almost entirely in Mandarin before I started watching it, but honestly, I’m really glad it was, it felt so much more authentic than if characters had ‘switched’ to talking to each other in English when you know the people they’re based on wouldn’t. It also feels a lot like an authentic Chinese-produced film and with the casting of rising star Awkwafina, I expect it might tempt a few people who are rarely inclined to watch Chinese or subtitled films to try it.
More than just one central role, this is all about a family dynamic and so relies on a brilliant ensemble cast. It’s a funny, ostensibly ‘true’ story that revels in the situations that arise from an interesting cultural belief and the way a tangled web is woven as the family scramble to show love and support while hampered by their determination to divulge the truth. I love when a film teaches me something interesting about another culture, and this is a perfect example of that, I didn’t know how much Chinese people avoid talking about death, that was completely new to me. Thankfully the characters in the film explain things clearly as the story develops, there’s no difficulty in understanding the cultural perspectives central to the story, at the same time it doesn’t make these a source of bitter contention, there’s warmth and love to how the family handles things even when they disagree, at times drawing out the funny side of things.
Awkwafina is superb in the lead role. She was one of the things I really liked about ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, a film that I initially thought I’d hate, but her character’s exuberance was refreshingly strident in the context of a lavish romance. As an aside, I did start writing a review of ‘Crazy, Rich Asians’ when it came out but I never finished it and the moment passed, maybe, just maybe, I’ll re-watch it sometime soon and finally get round to finishing writing that review. Here she proves that it was more than just that character that worked, she’s a confident lead, brilliantly cast as someone whose thinking has developed in line with her home, far from her family’s roots and eventually spanning a cultural divide putting her in a difficult position.
The grandmother, or Nai Nai to her family, is wonderfully played by Zhao Shuzhen, her first role in an American film which got her nominated for a bunch of smaller awards, a few of which she won, particularly those from critics societies who clearly appreciated her excellent work. It’s even more delightful when you’ve seen the film to the end and understand it’s based in fact on the writer’s grandmother, there are even members of her family in their corresponding roles which surely adds much of what makes the film feel so warm and authentic.
This is the kind of film I feel confident widely recommending to people. It’s hugely enjoyable, a film about a family brought together under strange circumstances that can be enjoyed by families (possibly stuck inside together under strange circumstances). Culturally enlightening while still offering familial interactions that are oddly familiar, it’s the kind of film I wish more people would watch though so many people (sometimes for good reasons) are put off by subtitles, though this film couldn’t be as honest and authentic without them.
Sadly and surprisingly ‘The Farewell’ didn’t get any Academy Award nominations despite many predicting it would get a few, especially in light of Awkwafina’s Golden Globe win. It’s a shame it didn’t, though BAFTA did nominate it for best film not in the English language, though this year the winner of that race was always going to be ‘Parasite’. It’s now available to watch on Amazon Prime and I recommend it highly.