“The Farewell” Is The Feel-Good Film Of The Summer
The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, has already racked up a slew of audience awards from various film festivals including Sundance, and it surely will be the feel-good movie of this summer as well. It tells a warm and biographical story about a family that has just learned that their grandmother back in the northeast Chinese city of Changchun has only a short time left to live due to cancer. Collectively, the family decides to keep their matriarch in the dark about her condition, as to not worry her and expedite her demise. To further complicate matters, they schedule a rushed and bogus wedding of a family member to allow all of them to gather together back in China before Grandma dies. What could go wrong, right?
Wang introduces her film with the title card, “Based on an actual lie,” and the story feels so specific and real that it had to be based on her own experiences. Her stand-in in the story is the character of Billi (played by Crazy Rich Asians breakout star Awkwafina). The hipster New York-raised granddaughter is a blunt-talking, no BS kind of gal, but she nonetheless goes along with the scheme cooked up by her well-meaning parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) to keep her beloved Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) in the dark. But as soon as they get over to China, the compounding of the lie starts to build and build with hilarious results. Billi is a fish out of water in the foreign land, and she’s not anymore at home being asked to lie.
Not only is the big little lie rendered all the more awful by the wise and sly Nai Nai’s suspicions that something is afoot, but by the LOL incompetence of her extended family. The young couple to be married looks stricken throughout as they become the center of attention during all of the pomp and ceremony surrounding their ‘marriage.’ Other family members break down at odd times, dropping cover and then going through all kinds of contortions to get back on track to the chosen narrative. And Lilli herself mopes around, hardly the plucky and laser-focused granddaughter that Nai Nai remembers her to be.
Awkafina, whose screen persona is that of an antagonizing and wise-cracking motormouth, has to play mostly reactive here. She’s up to the task, performing wonderfully, using her facial expressions and body language to convey her reluctance during each step of the charade. She also is a hoot when she’s forced to contort herself into all sorts of knots to keep up the lie as her anxious family watches with bated breath hoping that she won’t blow their cover.
Everyone in the family repeats an endless cycle of telling a lie, almost getting caught in it, and then compounding it with an even bigger lie. The only one who’s completely truthful is the candid and compassionate Nai Nai. She’s a loving woman, but a sharp-tongued senior too. Wang gives her some of the funniest quips in the film as she reacts to all of her family’s shenanigans with quiet exasperation.
Wang smartly keeps the comedy grounded and real, never resorting to pratfalls and slamming doors in a Blake Edwards kind of way. The recognizability of the situations renders the comedy all the funnier. The young filmmaker also manages to make the story one that’s incredibly moving too because none of these people are natural-born liars. It pains them demonstrably to perpetrate such deception, uttering ridiculous falsehoods all the while knowing Nai Nai’s days are nigh.
The height of the comedy reaches its zenith when the wedding reception occurs at a large and colorful banquet hall. All sorts of clueless friends and third-tier family members show up and, naturally, Nai Nai’s family struggles to keep them in the dark too. Soon open mics, as well as an open bar, lead some of the conspirators to run the risk of exposing the ruse. Billi is one of them, and watching Awkafina turn an awkward toast into a cathartic confession is both side-splitting and heartbreaking.
It’s impressive how Wang keeps the grip on her material, writing comic dialogue that is pointed and crisp, without it ever feeling like a sitcom. And even when she emphasizes certain moments with directorial flourishes, utilizing slow-motion or spinning camera movements, they never feel gratuitous. Wang’s greatest virtue as a filmmaker, besides her sharp writing, lies in her brilliant casting and direction of the ensemble. Each of the main actors and actresses makes a vivid impression, and considering that most of them are unknowns, it’s an exceptional accomplishment.
Most impressive amongst the ensemble is Shuzhen Zhou. Her Nai Nai conveys so much love, compassion, and smarts that you can understand why her family would never want to hurt this impressive matriarch. Zhou is so memorable here; she should be a contender for Best Supporting Actress come awards season. Special kudos to Tzi Ma too, as this veteran character actor gets more screen time than he usually does. He proves here that he’s as good at rendering regular Joe’s as those leaders and high-powered CEO’s he so often plays.
Of course, Wang’s shrewd and moralistic script critiques deception, but it also cheers on the good intentions of the ineptly conniving family. This is a film filled with love and heart. Her movie may be a precise and personal Asian-American story, but it is wholly universal, one that everyone should be able to relate to and embrace. And ultimately, even though this wonderfully character-driven comedy is about death, every second of it is filled with glorious, laudable life.
Catch the trailer for The Farewell below:
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