Sundance London: The Farewell

The Farewell
Directed by Lulu Wang
Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong and Jiang Yongbo

by Joanna Orland

Based on a true story from director Lulu Wang’s life, The Farewell is an exploration of cultural perspectives on family, love and death. The film also serves as a bittersweet, personal ode to Wang’s real-life grandmother.

Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina) returns to China when her grandmother “Nai Nai” is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Struggling with her family’s decision to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her own fate, she goes along with the ruse as they all stage an impromptu family wedding – an excuse to spend time with Nai Nai before she passes.

The family dynamic is the heart and soul of The Farewell. But as Billi and her parents have lived in America for decades, and her uncle’s family in Japan, their reunion in their homeland of China also serves to open a window into Chinese culture from the angle of an outsider with insider access. Through the familial interactions and traditions, the characters reflect on relationships, ageing, mortality and honouring the dead. Discussions on American versus Chinese belief and economic systems are discussed around the dinner table and peppered throughout various scenes. These observations are so naturalistically built into The Farewell that you could be forgiven for barely even realizing the scope of the film goes beyond the charaters’ immediate narratives.

Awkwafina is a revelation as Billi – her comedic skills and charm are of course on display, but her dramatic acting abilities and emotional portrayal of a granddaughter in turmoil is highly sympathetic. It’s quite early in her comedy career to do a dramatic turn, but the actress clearly doesn’t want to be, nor should she be, typecast as the funny sidekick. She’s a star and a talent deserving of meaty, complex roles. She’s proven that with her turn in The Farewell.

Taking universal themes and putting them through cultural lenses, director Lulu Wang has turned a family drama into something special. The Farewell is neither hard-hitting as a drama nor hilarious as a comedy, but has a lot to say about familiar subjects, bringing a fresh voice to a family drama.


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