Billed as one of the year’s best pictures, and quite rightly so, as the film’s mastery of its tragicomic tone and a solid ensemble cast combine to reach both tearjerking and comedic highs.
Dir. Lulu Wang
2019 | USA | Drama/Comedy | 100 mins | Mandarin & English
PG (passed clean) for thematic material, brief language and some smoking
Cast: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, X Mayo, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
Plot: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.
Awards: Nom. for Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic (Sundance); Won Best Leading Actress – Comedy/Musical; Nom. for Best Foreign Language Feature (Golden Globes)
International Sales: A24
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed in theatres)
If you remember Lee Ang’s ‘Father Knows Best’ films, particularly Pushing Hands (1992) and The Wedding Banquet (1993), you might recall the themes of cultural clash and East-to-West assimilation.
The Farewell shares a similar spirit, but in a reverse direction as a Chinese family who has lived in America for a long time goes back to China to visit their ailing matriarch, Nai Nai, possibly for the last time.
Awkwafina headlines Lulu Wang’s second feature as Billi, the daughter of the aforesaid family, in an extraordinary performance that is the antithesis of her supporting if memorable comedic role as Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians (2018).
Nai Nai’s extended family of children and grandchildren gather together on the pretext that they are there for a wedding, in a collective attempt to keep her in the dark about her terminal cancer. In an ideal world, Zhao Shuzhen in her debut performance as the matriarch might have garnered more buzz.
“I know it was hard. It was hard for us too.”
Nevertheless, The Farewell is already one of the most talked-about films of the year, though its early Sundance premiere at the beginning of the year could temper its awards prospects at the Oscars. (The Golden Globes is a likelier bet, with possible nods for Awkwafina for Best Leading Actress in the Comedy/Musical category, and maybe Best Screenplay for Wang.)
Apart from the solid ensemble cast, The Farewell is a showcase for Wang’s complete mastery of tone. (There are two films this year that have impressed me so far with its specific and precise tonal control, the other being Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.)
Because The Farewell is a story about a family who can’t reveal their true intentions, it becomes hilarious to see how the characters might fake it all the way through or succumb to their emotions midway.
This balance between carefully-calibrated comedy and poker-face seriousness is very difficult to achieve—it might be achievable through acting, but from a filmmaking point-of-view it just takes one false note (here an ill-placement of music, there a reverse shot coming a second too late) to ruin the mirage.
The first ever PG rated film by the distributor A24.
The culturally-specific story may bemuse the Chinese community in Asia, but whether the film will be a hit in places like Mainland China or Taiwan remains to be seen. For Singaporeans who have assimilated both Western thought and Eastern values, The Farewell is likely to resonate more wholly.
However, its universal theme of family is not really tied to any one culture, for as long as you love your family, you will find this a life-affirming work with plenty of pathos.