Every year, the Sundance Film Festival comes along and inundates film fandom with a healthy dose of anticipation, ultimately just before the Academy Award nominations are announced and buzz shifts over to them. That is, except for those few films that journalists and early audiences won't stop buzzing about until their hopeful release. The Farewell is one of those films, the newest project from Posthumous director Lulu Wang and based on Wang's own experiences with her grandmother.
For myself, I came into this film with only the backing knowledge of said buzz. I hadn't seen any of Wang's past work, nor heard the original basis of the story through her This American Life interview (see here). I have, however, been a fan of lead actress Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina, for a while now.
Yes, her uniquely captivating roles in films like Jon M. Chu's Crazy Rich Asians and Gary Ross' Oceans 8 got me to believe in her capabilities as an actress, but I was a fan of her way back on MTV's Girl Code which is probably one of the more clever shows MTV has tried in the last few years (not saying much, but I stand by that).
So with enough word of mouth behind it, how does The Farewell stack up as a result? Honestly, it's better than I could have imagined it to be. Lulu Wang's beautifully crafted story of familial loss is as beautifully charming as it is emotionally gripping, leaving a sense of reality that will go straight to the hearts of even the coldest filmgoer.
Billi (played by Awkwafina) is a writer living in New York after she and her family moved from China when she was young, though she regularly talks with her grandmother or Nai Nai. After visiting her parents, she learns that Nai Nai (played by Zhao Shuzhen), has recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and that the family has decided not to tell her to spare her the emotional burden.
Billi's cousin Hao Hao (played by Chen Han) is going to be married soon and the family wants to use the wedding as an excuse for everyone to see her before she passes away. Initially not invited in fear of her exposing the secret, Billi travels to meet her family in Changchun and reunites with them, where she attempts to engage in the festivities, rediscover her family's culture, and come to grips with her grandmother's condition.
THE FAREWELL | Official Trailer HD | A24 www.youtube.com
What makes 'The Farewell' so special is its ability to utilize grief as a narrative device while never falling into melodrama. The film locks us in as an audience early on by establishing the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai that only gets more wonderfully sweet as the story continues.
Nai Nai is Billi's emotional connection to her home, but the film never tries to get us to feel as though there's a pushiness to either character. There's simply a wonderful connection that we're allowed to follow along with and, as a result, view the families dynamics through that main lens.
That sense of togetherness is interestingly explored within this family unit. As the film points out, there's a distinct split in how Eastern and Western cultures with grief, but very wisely, the film never puts Billi nor her family in the wrong.
They're not split by their backgrounds, but rather united in their love of Nai Nai, and wholeheartedly believe that holding the truth within is better than letting it out in the open. It provides a unique emotional dichotomy that Lulu Wang uses, not to poke fun at cultural differences, but to place the burden of grief into contexts that we might often not consider.
Speaking of the family, we're gifted with a bevy of wonderful performances, not the least of which are its two main characters. Make no mistake: Awkwafina is a bonified actress. She has this wonderful sense of quirkiness that you might expect from some of her other roles, but in her more dramatic moments, she commands the screen.
The central story provides a lot of relatability for the character, and it provides an already distinct character with a strong sense of audience surrogacy that drives that emotional narrative. In addition, Zhao Shuzhen is delightful as Nai Nai, and brought a smile to my face throughout the runtime, as a kind-hearted matriarch who wants only the best for her family at a time of togetherness.
Even on a technical level, there's a lot to praise. Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano works tirelessly to portray Changchun as a place that our characters view with both nostalgic vibrancies, as well as anchored sadness. There's a sense that this is a place that Billi, and especially her family, are happy to be back for, but visually, we're also given a sense of complex attachment; that this isn't the place they left so long ago.
Add into account editors Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman use of lingering character moments, and composer Alex Weston's ethereal, vocal-based score, and you're left with a piece that has so much to visually explore just as much as it's emotional points.
I guess if I have to nitpick, I wish we had gotten a bit more developments with some of the family members. As I mention, most of them are very fleshed out and interesting, but I wish we had gotten a moment with Billi's cousin, considering his wedding is the focal point of when this is taking place. I also think there's a couple of visual sequences that I wish had a bit more context and directorial pacing put to them. Again, they don't take away from the majority of the story, but they're noticeable and I think they distract a little bit.
You may not be entranced by 'The Farewell' at first, but give it time, and the moments it nails will be a gut punch to your soul. I have to thank Lulu Wang for crafting a movie filled with wonderful performances, gorgeously crafted setting, and a sense of universal livelihood that make me reevaluate my own senses of grief and familial responsibilities. I hope that come next years Sundance, when Oscar nominations are on the horizon and the new buzz is about to take over, this film doesn't lose its momentum, because this is worth talking about just as much.
Overall, I give 'The Farewell' 9 out of 10.
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