ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 14: The Farewell

Year: 2019

Runtime: 100 Minutes

Director: Lulu Wang

Writer: Lulu Wang

Stars: Shuzhen Zhao, Awkwafina, X Mayo, Hong Lu, Hong Lin, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin

By Brian Skutle

In 2000, we learned that my grandfather had cancer. He went through chemotherapy, and my mother and I went up to help him and get him to doctor’s appointments as he ended up in assisted living. I was there the day he received his terminal diagnosis, and 7 of the next 10 weeks were spent trying to comfort him, and get things prepared for after the inevitable happened. It finally did in late July. I was very close to him- he was like another parent to me. It was devastating.

Those months come to the forefront of my mind in contemplating Lulu Wang’s beautiful dramatic comedy, “The Farewell.” Inspired by her own life, Wang tells the story of her family whom, when they find out the worst about their beloved Nai Nai, they do what is unthinkable to most of us- they don’t tell her. Instead, they plan a wedding for one of her grandchildren, Hao Hao, and his girlfriend of three months, as an excuse to have a happy experience to share with her. The whole family comes to China to celebrate. You can see it in a lot of their eyes- that worry that this might be the last time they see her alive. That worry is one of the reasons Billi’s parents do not want her to come to China- she’s not very good at hiding her emotions. Billi is the stand-in for Lulu Wang, and she is played by Awkwafina in what might be one of the best performances of the past decade of film.

What She Said:

“The Farewell can feel careful and overscripted, indicating Wang’s personal instinct to protect the characters and not delve too deeply into harsh truths. But this decision feels as loving as the film does.”

Roe McDermott, Hot Press

In the scene where Billi’s parents tell her about Nai Nai’s condition, her mother (Diana Lin) says, “It’s not the cancer that kills them. It’s the fear.” This might be the truest line in the film, and it’s that fear that is the hardest thing to mask for loved ones. My grandfather would put on a cheerful face for friends and relatives that came to visit him in those weeks before his death, but around my mother and I, it was like the life was sucked out of the room. My mom said he didn’t feel like he had to hide with us, because we saw him every day, and knew how bad he was.

As Billi and her father (Tzi Ma) say late in the film, hiding a person’s medical condition from them is illegal in America, but “The Farewell” makes one wonder how things would go if it wasn’t. After an early doctor’s appointment for Nai Nai, her sister, who has taken care of her all these years, explains her condition to her as a “benign shadow.” One of the most interesting parts of “The Farewell” is seeing how the stress of keeping the truth from Nai Nai wears on the family, and there are times when some of them almost crack.

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Shuzhen Zhao and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019) (IMDB)

Those are actually some of the most entertaining moments in the movie because one can’t help but wonder if Nai Nai will catch on to the ruse, and, given a revelation in one of the scenes in the film about Nai Nai, you wonder if maybe she’s already on to them. One of my favourite moments of the Atlanta Film Festival this year, where I first watched “The Farewell,” and was treated to a Q&A with Lulu Wang and Awkwafina, was some interesting truth that ties into the post-script of this film.

What She Said:

“Funny, surprising, and poignant in all the right places, The Farewell is the kind of film you will be glad to say hello to.”

Alison Rowat, The Herald (Scotland)

Part of why “The Farewell” connected on such a personal level for me was in how it focuses so much on the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai, played by the beautifully cheerful Shuzhen Zhou. That the first thing we see is a phone call between Billi and Nai Nai puts us on the emotional trajectory of the film for Billi, as she goes through her own version of the Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief- Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance- when it comes to not just Nai Nai’s health, but the family’s choice not to tell her the truth.

The Farewell - Still 1
Tzi Ma, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Hong Lu, Diana Lin, Awkwafina, and Yongbo Jiang in The Farewell (2019) (IMDB)

Billi is the audience surrogate in the film not just because of her being the lead in the film, but because she represents an audience that might not understand why a family would do this, would deprive a loved one of a chance to say goodbye. But her uncle has some truth for her that makes an awful lot of sense- in America, one’s life is one’s own; in China, one’s life is part of a whole. He says that it is their responsibility to carry this weight for her. This is a film one can learn a lot from when it comes to dealing with the pending loss of a loved one.

There are moments in “The Farewell” that are as authentically entertaining and revealing of character and story as I’ve seen in a film. There’s the scene where Nai Nai is outside, doing some breathing and minor physical exercises which she says “cleanses out the bad toxins” which she tries to get Billi to take seriously. This is a moment of genuine affection between the characters that illuminates something unique in their bond, and how they are almost one and the same, while also being fun to watch in how the actors perform it, and Wang and her cinematographer, Anna Franquesa Solano, shoot it.

What She Said:

“The Farewell is Awkwafina’s first leading role and she is truly a revelation, proving she is more than just the comedy sidekick.”

Rebecca Lewis, Metro (UK)
Twitter: @bexlewis361

There’s a montage of wedding prep where it’s a conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, and what’s going on for the wedding- such as pictures between the bride and groom- is secondary to the moments between Billi and Nai Nai- a perfect representation of the narrative we’re watching unfold. And there’s a scene at Nai Nai’s husband’s grave. We see others around other graves, and we see people wailing and crying in mourning of loved ones gone. The ways Nai Nai and family honour her husband and pray for good health, are some of the funniest in the movie.

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Shuzhen Zhao, Hong Lu, and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019) (IMDB)

I watch “The Farewell,” and I think about moments my grandfather and I had in the years after his wife died, and our bond grew. Billi and Nai Nai’s relationship is one of the best stories of love outside of romantic love I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it connects me to a time in my life where so many of my most formative memories come from. I will never forget the weeks and months before my grandfather died, no matter how grim they felt, but the moments “The Farewell” has me remembering most are the ones where we had personal moments that meant something to both of us, whether it was going to movies together, watching “Dr. Strangelove” and both being baffled by the idea that it was a comedy, or the moment we accidentally left my mother at home when all three of us were going to lunch. “The Farewell” is a unique situation, but the impact of Lulu Wang’s story is universal in how we think about the joys of life, and sadness in the face of death.

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

Redbox: Rent & Buy

YouTube: Rent & Buy

Fandango Now: Rent & Buy

Please note that “The Farewell” has not been released on demand in the U.K. at the time of publishing

Who to Follow:

Lulu Wang: @thumbelulu

Awkwafina: @awkwafina

Official Twitter: @thefarewell

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