By Nicole Ackman
It takes true talent to create a film that is both incredibly specific to one culture and somehow universal to all audiences. Luckily, Lulu Wang has this talent as she amply proves in “The Farewell” (2019). Wang wrote and directed this endearing film based partially on her own life and family. It originated as a radio story, “What You Don’t Know,” that was part of an episode of “This American Life.” This year, it came to the big screen and is sure to remain one of the most important films to come out of 2019.
“The Farewell” tells the story of a family who find out that their grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As many Chinese families do, they choose not to tell her but to gather the family together for a last-minute wedding as an excuse to visit her before she dies. The movie centers around Billi (Awkwafina), an aspiring writer who has been raised in New York, and is particularly close with her Nai Nai struggles with the family’s decision. “The Farewell” is also largely a film about being caught between two cultures as much of Nai Nai’s family has immigrated, either to America or to Japan, and has to face returning to their homeland.
If that makes it sound like an incredibly moving and emotional movie, it is. The likelihood that you will cry while watching it is high. What you might not expect is how much you will laugh. Wang’s script infuses humor throughout, even in the graveyard scene, as the family goes to visit Nai Nai’s husband’s grave. Wang manages to walk the perfect line between laughter-inducing and heart-breaking without ever becoming overly sentimental. In fact, Wang’s script is one of the most impressive parts of the film.
It is amazing how Wang manages to build such distinct and lovable characters in a film of just ninety-eight minutes. Awkafina proves that she is a wonderful dramatic actress, in addition to a great comedic performer, in the role of Billi. Watching her internal struggle, both with the idea of not telling her grandmother her diagnosis and as she tries to reconcile her two cultures is astounding. Tzi Ma is also wonderful as Billi’s father, Haiyan Wang. His performance is equal parts dignified and emotive as he also struggles to face his mother knowing that it may be the last time he sees her.
“It is remarkable that Wang created this film that is so lovingly and thoroughly steeped in Chinese and Chinese-American culture and yet has a message so strong that it can appeal to wide audiences.”
The cast is full of wonderful women, including Diana Lin as Jian Wang, Billi’s mother, and Lu Hong as Nai Nai’s younger sister. But it is Zhao Shuzhen who easily stands out amongst the supporting cast in the role of Nai Nai. It’s a wonderfully endearing performance as she brings great lively energy and the perfect grandmotherly spirit. It seems possible that she might even be recognized at the Oscars for her lovely portrayal.
Aside from the great acting and script, “The Farewell” is simply a well-made film that seems sure to cater to those who enjoy indie movies. Alex Weston’s score is one of the best of the year thus far and Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography is beautiful. The editing by Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman helps the film keep a steady pace and is particularly good in the quick back-and-forth of an argument that occurs about cultural differences over dinner.
Perhaps the best thing about “The Farewell” is how beautifully it depicts Chinese and Chinese-American culture. It was filmed in New York City and Changchun, China, and the viewer can definitely sense the authenticity of both. A mix of Mandarin and English are spoken in the film with subtitles for translation; it’s more Mandarin than I had ever heard spoken in a non-Asian film before. There are multiple beautiful scenes of the family eating loads of Chinese foods; this film is truly a food lover’s dream.
It is remarkable that Wang created this film that is so lovingly and thoroughly steeped in Chinese and Chinese-American culture and yet has a message so strong that it can appeal to wide audiences. Its themes of love, mortality, identity, and culture are something that can speak to everyone. If you are close with your grandmother or if you have lost a grandparent, this film is sure to hit you in the heart, but in a way that feels cathartic and warm. Lulu Wang has truly created something incredibly special.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars