The Farewell is a drama that highlights the similarities and differences between eastern and western cultures, particularly China and America. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a partially a true story involving a family who’s chosen to hide terminal cancer from the family matriarch. Wang places Billi (Awkwafina) at the center of the story, a Chinese immigrant who moved with her parents to America when she was still a young child. Having grown up learning the western mentality, Billi is torn between going along with the family’s ruse and telling the truth. Billi, against her parents' wishes, travels to China to see her paternal grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhou Shuzhen), possibly for the last time.

In America, doctors inform the patient of their health, whereas Chinese doctors tell the patient’s family first. Then the family will decide the best way to handle the news.

In this case, the family arranges a wedding for Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), and his Japanese fiancé. With it being a large family gathering, the wedding is really an opportunity for everyone to see Nai Nai before she’s gone. All of it seems downright cruel, but this way of thinking is something that’s commonly practiced within Chinese culture. Billi's family's way of thinking leaves Billi sad, angry and unsure. Her immediate response is to tell Nai Nai the truth, or at least convince her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), to change their minds. In the meantime, this homecoming allows Billi to catch up and reminisce about the scant time she spent in China. Billi, though, clashes with her family for obvious reasons. All of it makes for an interesting feature full of sadness and hope (and few laughs, too).

It’s obvious that hiding terminal illness from a family member would never fly in the States. In fact, as mentioned during one scene, doing so would be illegal. But the factors surrounding this way of thinking is pointed out multiple times, enough so that it gives Billi pause. Billi’s paternal uncle, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), provides a perspective that Billi hasn’t considered and his assertion gives the aspiring writer pause. His reasoning makes sense because it subscribes to idea that family comes first.

Wang not only uses her dialogue to stress that notion, she uses plenty of visuals to depict how important family is to her. With everyone all in one place, dinners are a true family experience. There’s plenty of food and plenty of talk, all with a lazy Susan lying at the center of a round table. Wang also includes quiet moments between Nai Nai and Billi; Nai Nai is seen teaching Billi a routine she does every morning to “stay healthy.” The Farewell, understandably, is full of quiet moments all meant to highlight the bonds families share with each other.

If nothing else, The Farewell adds legitimacy to Awkwafina as an actress. Beginning as a rapper, Awkwafina has successfully transitioned to acting, first as a character actor and scene-stealer (she was memorable in Ocean’s 8 and then brought the house down in Crazy Rich Asians). Awkwafina’s previous roles were more over the top and chewed up scenery; as Billi she’s more reserved and pensive. Billi still has an American-like mean streak, but she’s respectful of her family and culture, despite her displeasure with how Nai Nai’s illness is being handled. This restraint hasn’t been seen from Awkwafina before that, combined with Billi’s backstory, gives her character incredible depth that I wasn’t sure the young NYC actress possessed. In short, Awkwafina’s excellent and she’s proving with one film that she’s a talented Asian-American who can usher in a wave of promising Asian-American talent.

The real star, though, is Wang. She parlayed her own real-life experiences into The Farewell, so her honesty and sincerity is evident. What’s more impressive is she’s able to depict Chinese culture without exploiting it. At the same time, Wang successfully made The Farewell a universal film by driving home the highs and lows of extended family. Wang is also careful to not hit audiences over the head with her message – The Farewell is organically told as she presents her feature as a slice of life event.

The Farewell may be one of 2019’s best entries. It’s easily the most genuine and relatable film out now. And besides Wang’s and Awkwafina’s accomplishments, Tzi Ma (Rush Hour, Arrival) is memorable in role that doesn’t play up Asian stereotypes while Zhou Shuzhen is adorable and confident (not to mention she reminds me of my maternal grandmother). Those who are family-oriented will value Wang’s themes and messages most, but overall it’s simply a well-made feature that provides plenty of love in a myriad of ways.

4 stars out of 5


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