Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Family-drama is one of the most relatable phenomenons across cultures. No person has a completely neat, tidy relationship with their family, there is always going to be growth, strength, forgiveness and perseverance in order for a unit to persist and evolve. The Farewell is an effortlessly specific story about a family working to sustain a lie for the benefit of another member. First time-feature director Lulu Wang presents a lovely, mostly graceful vision of her semi-auto-biographical story. Her closeness to the material is palpable, the affection and sympathy for the characters is refreshing, where many films produced by A24 feel casually distant, Wang digs deep on meaningful dialogue and a minimal yet natural aesthetic.
The Farewell wisely begins with a small exchange between a granddaughter, Billi, (Awkwafina) and her grandmother, Nai Nai, (Shuzen Zhao) after announcing that the film is based on an actual lie, they lob small veiling lies back and forth to each other. The aforementioned lie is one on behalf of Billi’s family about Nai Nai’s cancer diagnosis, she has Stage 4 Lung Cancer and has three months to live, but her family has decided to lie to her so the fear of death doesn’t kill her before the illness does. Upholding this lie instigates the moral and cultural dialogue The Farewell excels at having, every scene where people are talking is fantastic. The conversations in this film are so alive and thoughtful, the conversation about whether Billi’s family considers themselves Chinese or American is a particular highlight. Diana Lin (Jian, Billi’s mother) and Shuzen Zhao are undeniably perfect in their roles, seldom are their actors so generous and organic, they allow their words to breath, no emotional note is unpunctuated in their hands.
Not all of the acting is as understanding, however, Awkwafina often felt like she was acting for a very different film. There was a thematic thread to her performance, she felt more American, more abrasive, brash, conceited, narcissistic but she was an individual, open-minded, mature, tough yet big-hearted and her growth was directly related to her cultural identity. Billi as a character was an incredibly well-written part, but Awkwafina overpowers many of the scenes she is in. This is Billi’s journey, but equally so for those around her. There is an enormity to some of the emotions in this film, the scene with Billi and her mother on the bed, Billi and Nai Nai doing exercises, Awkwafina felt like she was tugging the viewers attention away from the performers around her in these moments. This could have been part of her character, as she was supposed to be the most American of the family, placing the burden and focus on herself, either a directorial or script decision but it often distracted from the other great things happening around her.
And what great things there were! The direction in The Farewell is a blend of understated tones and styles that one would have never thought to put together. There are numerous wide-long-takes resembling a Koreeda, Ozu, Yang or Hsiao-Hsien Hou film, where the family-drama unravels slowly climaxing in flourishes of emotion and confession. The transitions, often employing the aforementioned Ozu’s use of “pillow shots” employ a strange use of orchestral music which amplified Billi’s dislocation between China and America, it was surprisingly stylish resulting in some amazing non-diegetic-music-set-to-slow-motion sequences towards the end. There are some impressionistic touches that don’t work quite as well; not because of their quality but because of their brevity, these scenes deserved more time to be fleshed out or it might’ve benefitted the narrative if those moments weren’t there at all.
The Farewell is a film that just about anybody should see. The script is one of the tightest and most efficient in the family-drama genre, so many characters are allowed to shine, develop and grow in only an hour and forty minutes. Wang is an exciting new voice that feels fresh and new in a genre as old as humans themselves. Hopefully The Farewell is just a beginning for her.