Cinematic Releases: The Farewell (2019) - Reviewed

Chinese-American writer-director Lulu Wang has been around the block with her series of short films beginning in the early 2000s followed by her first feature with the 2014 romantic comedy Posthumous.  That film told the story of an artist whose popularity explodes after inaccurate reports of his death hit the tabloids and his subsequent efforts to perpetuate the falsehood by pretending to be his surviving brother.  It’s important to consider the notion of fabrication or noble lying as it becomes a kindred theme in the writer-director’s newest and most autobiographical work yet, The Farewell 

Bearing the tagline ‘Based on an Actual Lie’, the largely Mandarin film with occasional English dialogue stars rapper/comedian Awkwafina in her first dramatic role as Billi, a writer who learns her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of lung cancer with a few months left to live.  In what is apparently a time-honored, distinctly Chinese tradition, the immediate family has decided to keep the bad news from Nai Nai through sneaky alterations of the medical records, language barriers and recurring reminders all of the doctor appointments are just for ‘benign shadows’. 

To spend time with grandmother on her final days while maintaining the lie of good health, the family meets up in China to stage a wedding for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han).  Amid family dinners, all wear smiles and speak of good cheer while hiding their true emotions for what’s happening to their grandmother.  Everyone is on board with the ruse, but will Billi’s internal conflict between cultural differences on dealing with death inadvertently cause her to spill the beans? 

A quiet, frequently funny and bittersweet yet life affirming tearjerker of sorts, the bilingual A24 dramedy The Farewell is most notable for providing Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) with ample room to show off her dramatic acting chops.  The story of coming to grips with losing a loved one is as old as time and yet writer-director Wang grounds it firmly in Chinese roots and soil.  In addition to sporting scenic locations in Changchun, China as well as brief moments in New York City, The Farewell is distinctive for examining the struggle of a young woman caught between the two worlds of the East and West with key cultural differences regarding dealing with impending death.

Visually it’s a handsomely lensed production, shot in panoramic widescreen by Anna Franquesa Solano, though let it be said The Farewell is largely an intimate interpersonal drama concerning Billi trying to make sense of her family’s decision to withhold the bad news from her.  Music is also kept to a minimum with occasional orchestral strumming from Alex Watson.  Still, this is primarily a clandestine ensemble piece consisting of characters bound together by their love for Nai Nai with Billi bridging the gap between Chinese tradition and American cultural customs.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a more sweet natured yet wholly plausible tug of the heartstrings than any other picture in theaters this year!

- Andrew Kotwicki