Runtime: 1h 40min
Director: Lulu Wang
Writer: Lulu Wang
Stars: Shuzhen Zhao, Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
By Joan Amenn
How do you say good-bye to a beloved member of the family? Worse yet, what if they don’t know that their time is short? “The Farewell” (2019) addresses this situation with humor and gentle ruefulness that is never maudlin. Young Billi (Awkwafina) resides in America but stays in close touch with her Chinese grandmother, or Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao).
The bonds of family and the tension between the viewpoints of the younger versus the older generations are universally recognizable, even though Billi’s family is Asian. For example, Nai Nai speaks the language of grandmothers everywhere when she asks her granddaughter about her dating prospects. Billi’s parents are adamant that no one tells Nai Nai that she is terminally ill and the whole family comes together to contrive a wedding so that they may say a clandestine farewell to the matriarch. The fact that the groom has dated his soon to be wife for three months and she only speaks Japanese does not seem to deter anyone from making this special day happen for Nai Nai’s benefit, much to Billi’s bemusement.
Awkwafina is perfect as a woman torn between two cultures who just wants to do right by someone who she obviously adores and respects. Diana Lin is amazing as Billi’s mother Lu Jian; she is brittle and cold yet compassionate and perceptive all at once. She knows the toll that emigrating to America took on her marriage and doesn’t regret it at all as she pointedly reminds her family that they all want their children to go to college in the U.S, not China. Shuzhen Zhao is luminous as the beloved Nai Nai who certainly doesn’t seem to let illness, age or anything else slow her down.
This is a tour de force as a debut film for Lulu Wang, both as a writer and director and definitely one of the year’s best.