The Farewell: The BRWC Review. They are rare, but the moments in a cinema where you have such confidence and love for a film that you hand over your emotions then and there, in your first viewing, those moments are the best. Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is one of those experiences, and one of the years finest films as a result.
The Farewell opens with the text “Based on a true lie”, the lie being from a family to their elderly matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). The family have found out that Nai Nai is dying of lung cancer and have decided not to tell her, opting instead to stage a fake wedding to bring all her relatives back together in China to aptly say farewell. This all stretches from a Chinese belief which the film loosely presents as, “It’s not the cancer that kills, it’s the fear”.
The path we’re led down is a heartbreaking one that displays the impact people have on each others lives, especially family. We follow Billi (Awkwafina) who left China when she was 6 and has only sparingly seen her grandmother ever since but always remained in contact. Her family thought it would be best for Billi to not come to the wedding as she wouldn’t be able to maintain the lie, but Billi had so much love for her grandmother that she simply had to come and find the bravery to hide her emotions. When we emerge in China, we are confronted by a family unit which simultaneously regrets and embraces their decision to hide the truth. This emotional complexity is why The Farewell is as evocative as it is, the family drama is something audiences are no strangers to, but in this context, it’s like a whole new sub-genre.
Above all else, The Farewell is a story that deserves telling, not only that; it is a story that had to be told. The world is a better place with this film existing within it. Countless films endeavour to capture love and put it on display but only a precious few manage to say something brand new on the topic, and the tragic beauty of The Farewell does that and so much more. There are scenes where you will laugh and cry within mere seconds of its rollercoaster ride. The best example of this is the absurdity of the fake wedding that in every aspect is real to Nai Nai. Her grandson Hao Hao (Han Chen) is posing to marry his girlfriend of only three months Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), both are very young and find themselves awkwardly having to keep up the façade, resulting in plenty of hilarious moments. Yet all Nai Nai’s children at the wedding know the truth, and it weighs heavily upon them. All this is balanced masterfully, and that is thanks to one person above all others.
Lulu Wang is a born emotional puppet master. She weaves her biopic with such a delicate yet engrossing hand that it is difficult to believe this is only her second feature film. She is a filmmaker with such an eye for the simplicities of life that they come off as grandeur and sublime, but never lose their charm. From an American laundromat to the streets of China, Wang manages to stamp her name on everything on the other side of the lens. With the script, she has also created something so much more than what you would assume. There is an element that focuses on the logistics of moving from China to live or study in America. This element evolves into a discourse on how we should view our home even when we know our home has issues. And in an even greater testament to her mastery, this element fits in perfectly with the family-based waterworks, and it manages to convey an essential truth in the process. Lulu Wang has captured the hearts and souls of so many with her movie, and whatever’s next, a lot of them will come to listen, and I’m excited for whatever that may be.
The ensemble is the years best to date from what I’ve managed to see so far. Awkwafina firms her stardom with her career-best work here and it’s almost impossible to describe how adorable Shuzhen Zhao is as her grandmother. She carries herself with all the composure of the veteran actor she is and makes the transition to the western style seamlessly. A supporting actress Oscar nomination is the only way Hollywood can properly honour what she achieved here, and I hope they do because she more than deserves it. Together they form an irresistibly endearing pair that become the basis of every tug of the heartstrings. Every other member of the family nails their roles to perfection too. With Billi’s parents Haiyan and Lu Jian, played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin respectively, being two more standouts as they further the emotional depth of this film to a whole new level as they come to terms with lying to a parent.
The Farewell is a heartfelt ode to the complexities of family relationships. Lulu Wang has developed into a filmmaker of great merit after only two films, and that is a staggering achievement. If you are fortunate enough to have a grandmother still, you will want to give her a call the second you walk out of the theatre, and that’s how you’ll know you have just seen something special.
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