Billi’s family returns to China under the guise of a fake wedding to stealthily say goodbye to their beloved matriarch — the only person that doesn’t know she only has a few weeks to live.
To give you full transparency, The Farewell was one of my top anticipated films I was looking forward to the most in 2019. I first heard about the movie after it received a ton of buzz when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and got picked up by A24, my favorite studio who is a big supporter of smaller, indie films. I then found out Awkwafina took on the lead role which took me by surprise because she is known for starring in comedy movies and not in drama. I was really curious to see how she would handle something different from her usual work. Not to mention, the movie was directed by Lulu Wang who has definitely made a name for herself after debuting this film which got me even more excited since I am always up for supporting female filmmakers. Plus, the fact that this was a deeply personal film for Wang inspired by true events was especially enticing. After all, it was based on an actual lie that her real-life family lived through with her aging grandmother. All of these factors combined were just what the doctor ordered and exactly what I would seek out the most for a film like The Farewell. And let me tell you – I was NOT disappointed.
I could go on and on about the many reasons why I loved this film so much – like the way food was implemented in dinner scenes was a way to manage with grief; the gorgeous cinematography which made it so obvious that every shot was given so much attention and had a purpose to be there; the choice of music for the soundtrack which was absolutely and how it swells up in all the right moments throughout the movie; the multiple conversations that were had regarding the cultural differences between the individualistic values common in America versus the collectivistic values common in the Chinese culture and how it affects this family, and more.
However, we cannot go into this review further without having a dedicated discussion on the performances from our main characters, especially Awkwafina as Billi (who is based on the real-life director Lulu Wang) and Zhao Shuzhen as Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai (which is, fun fact, a Mandarin term for “paternal grandmother”).
You can truly sense the close relationship these two had for each other, especially with the long distance they have to endure since Billi lives in New York as an aspiring writer and Nai Nai remains living in China. Once Billi finds out from her parents that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and only has a few months left to live, this is where Awkwafina truly begins to shine.
You see, The Farewell taught us that in China, it is common to not tell a family member about a life-threatening disease they have been diagnosed with and it is up to the rest of the family to deal with the emotional burden of the diagnosis. Billi, who was raised in America and in Western culture, had conflicted thoughts about her family’s decision. They fly to China and even use a cousin’s wedding as an excuse to unite the family one last time before her grandmother passes away. Though she had the dialogue to display the pain she was going through, it was her body language and facial expressions that really nailed her performance. As an audience member, you sincerely feel for Billi who had to go along with her family’s lie and struggle to be strong enough for her grandmother. I had no idea that Awkwafina had this sort of potential inside of her and I was blown away by her dramatic performance. She easily became my new favorite actress working in the industry today.
And let me tell you something about Zhao Shuzhen portrayal as Nai Nai, aka the true breakout star of the film. Let’s just say as soon as the end credits start rolling in, she will make you want to call your own grandparents immediately and tell them how much you love them. Her character was THAT good and completely embodies everything that Wang’s real-life grandmother must have been like. After all, Nai Nai is exactly what you would picture a typical Chinese grandmother to behave like – a respected matriarch who loves her family deeply, values her Chinese culture immensely, and is not afraid to show how tough she can be. Though she is the wisest of her family, Nai Nai also had to be naive enough to not realize that her entire family is deceiving her behind her back. Kudos to whoever the casting director was because Shuzhen excelled above and beyond my expectations for Nai Nai. She truly won my heart over and broke it into a million pieces at the same time. I officially want her as my honorary grandmother.
As you can tell, I honestly adored this film and I am so so SOO happy that it is still doing very well in theaters this summer among bigger blockbuster films. It is without a doubt my favorite film of the year so far and I could literally set up a TED talk discussing more about this phenomenal movie. If you have not had the chance to catch The Farewell and it is still playing at a theater near you, WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING WITH YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
My score: ★★★★★/5
Be sure to watch The Farewell while you still can which is still playing in select theaters.