The Farewell is one of the rare movies that lives up to the hype. Director Lulu Wang’s autobiographical feature made a splash at Sundance earlier this year. And since then, the movie’s positive word of mouth has snowballed. Somehow, this funny, thoughtful, and heart-wrenching film still snuck up and walloped me with an emotional sucker punch – and I’m thankful that it did.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a young Chinese American woman drifting through life in New York City. When we meet her, she’s behind on her rent and gets rejected for a fellowship she counted on landing. When she visits her parents’ house for a laundry run, it seems like things can’t get worse than her mother’s nagging. But things do get worse.
Billi’s sweet granny Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with stage-four cancer and only has a few months to live. So Billi’s family decides to travel to China to visit Nai Nai one last time before she passes. But there’s one huge catch. No one can tell Nai Nai she is about to die.
The family stages a fake wedding as an excuse to visit China. But Billi wears her heart on her sleeve and doesn’t agree with keeping the truth from Nai Nai. Billi’s family discourages her from making the trip since she will surely reveal their secret, but she goes anyway. Now thrust into this awkward situation, Billi must make peace with lying to Nai Nai while coming to terms with letting her go.
We know Awkwafina has a colourful personality and she can deliver a comedic performance in her sleep. The charismatic Queens rapper has proven her comedy chops in her music career as well as Hollywood features like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. At a glance, Billi requires the type of nuanced performance reserved for seasoned actors, but Awkwafina nails the role. Credit Wang for seeing acting potential in a rapper best known for albums featuring songs like Queef and My Vag.
Casting Awkwafina in this restrained role is like bringing a firecracker into a library and telling it to shush. But damn it if she doesn’t turn in one of the year’s most compelling performances. Billi is the film’s emotional anchor, and the film’s conceit is that she can’t share her feelings.
Billi conveys a full range of emotions without uttering a word. It’s a pitch-perfect example of show, don’t tell. She’s always battling the impulse to unload her feelings, and she spends the movie physically balled up. Billi is always slouching, her head down and shoulders slumped; a woman dragging her heavy heart wherever she goes. Billi spends so much time holding back her true feelings that it’s devastating when she starts to crack.
Billi keeps cycling through feelings of sadness, rage, and self-doubt. The decision to keep Nai Nai’s health a secret is rooted in Chinese culture. Billi grew up in America, and she can’t relate to her family’s traditional Chinese beliefs. Being an outsider, she’s forced to question if her family may be right. The beauty of the film is that it does not make this moral choice a black and white issue. So, it’s fascinating watching Billi wrestle with this complex ethical dilemma.
Wang’s script is full of characters who are bursting with feelings, yet unable or unwilling to express them. It’s up to the camera, lighting, costumes, and production design to get across the what goes unsaid. DP Anna Franquesa Solano conveys The Farewell’s themes by finding clever ways to compose each scene.
In many shots, Billi is the only object in focus, symbolizing how isolated she feels, even amidst the bustle of New York. The bright city lights melt away into a soft haze around her as she makes her way through the streets. Sometimes, Solano uses a wide-angle lens to cram Billi’s entire family into a single shot. With so many bodies jumbled together in the frame, you feel as stifled as Billi. This shooting style visualizes the emotional tug of war Billi finds herself in as she alternates between feeling alone and overcrowded.
One of my favourite scenes sees the family visiting Nai Nai’s dead husband in a cemetery. The boisterous – and increasingly impatient – clan stand clustered together to reminisce and pray, while engulfed by a sea of gravestones. The countless memorials force you to consider all of the lives that have come to an end. It’s an alarming reminder that we all die. But watching the family hanging out in a graveyard with a dying relative while visiting a dead relative doesn’t feel depressing. It’s actually quite beautiful.
The family have come together not because of death but in spite of it. Their love for each other and the memories they share helps them carry on when confronted with their own mortality. They are not there to mourn, they’re there to celebrate.
Wang’s film asks us to consider the fleeting nature of our existence, and embrace the here and now. It says that life’s only constant is change, and what we take for granted today may be gone tomorrow. The Farewell finds beauty in life’s small moments, as messy as they may be.
Lulu Wang’s poignant tale of a young woman’s moral dilemma delivers on the hype. With its fantastic cast of characters, exceptional performances, and life-affirming themes, The Farewell is one of the year’s must-see films.