Lulu Wang’s The Farewell could easily have drowned in its melodrama. It certainly hangs all of its narrative weight on its central conceit, in which a family hides their matriarch’s terminal cancer from her and use a staged wedding to give her a final family reunion. But there is something profound in the emotional power of Wang’s film.
When her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) inform Billi (Awkwafina) that her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has just months to live, she flies to China to attend the “wedding” (adding more debt to her bank account as a result). The crux of the film is her struggle with the lie. She prods at her family, hoping that they will relent and allow her grandmother the knowledge of her impending death. Encircling this debate is a broader conversation about an East-West culture clash.
These two ideas, the prodding and the culture clash, are all well and good. One highlight scene involves a circular dinner conversation—it is circular both in staging and in scripting—in which the debate over Chinese and American culture comes to a head. But what is most impressive about The Farewell is how the emotions of the large cast of characters can be so easily and intensely felt by the viewer. Wang composes many still shots that conjure complex emotions with little to no dialogue, and the execution appears effortless.
For the first time at the cinemas in 2019, a director has fully drawn me into a place and time. It urges one to be invested in this insular familial world while potentially reminding one of where they’ve come from.
The tightly-contained world here is not perfect—I could personally do with less slow-motion closeups of Awkwafina walking, as her real-time acting serves as a better emotional template—but it is alive with characters we know little about but who nevertheless feel like complete characters.
Standing out the most among these characters is three generations of women in the family. Awkwafina is given the most direct dramatic work to do, and her performance explains why Wang would want to capture her face in a mesmerizing slo-mo closeup. But her most powerful moment is a monologue which she gives sitting in a room filled with balloons.
Nai Nai’s big personality stands out, as well, and Zhao is a consistently funny and endearing performer. Jian, Billi’s mother, has a personality that stands out less, but she may be the most complicated character in the film. Lin does so much with this character without striving to outshine her scene partners. Quite easily, hers is my favorite supporting performance of the year thus far.
The Farewell is a genuinely heartfelt and even more genuinely funny piece from Wang. Is it a life-changing theatrical experience? Perhaps not; your mileage may vary, as with anything. But it transports you to a place with plenty of emotional highs that could affect you in a poignant manner.
The Farewell: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)