To the majority of the regular audience, The Farewell, a film that heavily leans on director Lulu Wang’s Chinese heritage and upbringing, as well as being mostly spoken in Mandarin, may not sound like the most relatable of cinematic experiences. Despite all of this, the film evokes a universal emotional reaction that challenges any viewer to think in an introspective manner about their family values and relationships with their loved ones.
As previously mentioned, The Farewell is a film made from a very personal perspective by Wang, who imbues the film’s lead character Billi with her own backstory, as a Chinese-American woman who emigrated from her homeland at just 6 years old. The film’s plot revolves around the fact that Billi’s grandmother, known as Nai-Nai, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but as is the norm in Chinese culture, the family decide that it is best for Nai-Nai to be kept in the dark about her illness and a fake wedding is created in order to make an excuse for all the family to be together again. What follows is an expertly crafted tale that is able to balance the complicated and contrasting themes of family, humour, one’s place in the world and the acceptance of mortality.
Leading the film is the brilliant Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), who swaps her usual comedic roles for a much more emotive, nuanced role that enables her to further establish herself as a very gifted actor. She captures Billi’s ever-growing list of crises with such ease, juggling her financial and career worries with the grief of the approaching loss of Nai-Nai whilst retaining the kooky, witty humour that audiences have come to expect from her performances. Though it will probably get swept up in the upcoming awards season frenzy, this will go down as one of the best performances of the year and it’s clear that Awkwafina’s stock will continue to rise. Whilst it’s an impressive lead performance, one can’t help but be in total awe of Shuzhen Zhao, who as Nai-Nai, serves as the film’s unwitting emotional anchor. Zhao, in her first-ever on-screen outing, is an example of perfect casting and if she doesn’t receive at least an Oscar nomination for her emotional, heartwarming performance, she’ll have been absolutely robbed. Nai-Nai is the element of the film that is able to truly connect with the audience, the manifestation of everyone’s fears about what will happen when their loved ones pass away. Although she’s mostly framed from Billi’s perspective as the grandmother many of us may have, she undoubtedly will represent a variety of people whom members of the audience will have held in a similar regard, which allows the film to truly hit close to home.
Equally, The Farewell is a film that demonstrates a superb sense of craftsmanship within the technical elements that help to feed the emotionally charged story. The film’s score, composed by Alex Weston, utilises deep, operatic singing combined with a string-heavy orchestra that creates an ominous aura which perfectly complements the events unfolding throughout. The camerawork by Anna Franquesa Solano excels not by simply using sprawling establishing shots of a Chinese cityscape but through its framing of each and every family member going through their own struggles in coming to terms with Nai-Nai’s condition. Even the framing of Billi and Nai-Nai together is beautifully captured, complemented by smart usage of shot-reverse-shot frames that are pieced together by the film’s ever-changing yet consistently effective style of editing. Particularly prevalent throughout the film is how the family and Nai-Nai are framed separately, often with the family on one side and Nai-Nai the other, which is able to tell the film’s story without the use of words, which is always a difficult thing to really pull-off effectively.
Lulu Wang’s heartfelt yet humorous script allows the audience frequent respite from the heavy subject matter and there are genuine moments littered throughout that really highlight how personal this story is to the writer/director. Whilst this is often a gamble in films, in this instance, it proves to not be an obstacle in making The Farewell a truly relatable cinematic experience. One pitfall of the film could perhaps be a lack of overall resolution, seen in the way in which a majority of the characters are given no purpose in the story than of affected family members, but that detracts from the two performances that provide the anchor for the majority of the film’s emotional backbone.
The Farewell is a film that, regardless of your grasp of Chinese culture, is able to touch on themes of family life and human existence that transcend any cultural barriers. This is a film that should absolutely be seen by any audience, as it deals with such complex issues in a simplistic and effective manner, told through wonderful performances and expert craftsmanship. Whilst, unfortunately, it may go unnoticed by the major awards, The Farewell is definitely one of 2019’s very best films and a definite must-see.
Words by Elliott Jones