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Movie Review: "The Farewell" Is A Poignant Portrait of Life and Death


Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzen, Lu Hong, Jian Yongbo
Written and Directed by Lulu Wang

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs

 Out of Four

It's that time of year when blockbuster blues start to set in for some of us, and more substantial, thoughtful antidote slipped in between The Lion King and Hobbs and Shaw is very welcome. The Farewell fits the bill very well, though it is certainly not going to be a movie for everyone.

Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American writer who maintains a close relationship with her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) - "Nai Nai" as she is known in Mandarin - even though Billi resides in New York and and grandmother still lives in Changhun. 
After receiving a rejection letter for a Guggenhiem fellowship, Billi is feeling pretty bleak, but soon discovers that things can get much worse when her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma and Jian (Diana Lin)break the news that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and has been given only a few months left to live.
Images Courtesy Focus Features
Billi is then shocked to learn that the one person who hasn't been told this news is Nai Nai herself: through deception and manipulation of  medical tests results, the family keeps the diagnosis from her. A  wedding for Billi's cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), from Japan, is quickly thrown together as an excuse to unite the family together in China in order to spend what is expected to be one last time with Nai Nai. 
While the premise of The Farewell could easily have devolved into a contrived '90's Sandra Bullock style comedy where hilarious hi jinks ensue as the characters play out their wacky charade, this isn't that kind of movie. There is nothing Hollywood about writer-director Lulu Wang's approach to this story that comes from her own life experiences. Every time you think you think a standard cliche moment is coming, Wang instead gives you a less grandiose one that rings decidedly true. It's an intimate, introspective and moving portrait of extended family at their closet together and further apart, and Wang lets the awkward silences and unexpressed thoughts speak volumes.  The choice to let the actors speak from English when speaking English and actually speak Mandarin with subtitles during the long stretches when the characters are supposed to be speaking Mandarin doesn't just serve the plot, it serves the reality. But writing this off as My Big Fat Grief Wedding would be a big mistake: the familial relationships are layered, never going for stock characters (there's no self conscious, "get a load of how Asian we are?" feeling here), and the complex emotions and thought processes these people are going through should speak to all nationalities.

Images Courtesy Focus Features
Awkwafina gives a beautiful and thoroughly lovable performance as Billi, establishing herself as an excitingly original and true leading lady presence. Zhao Shuzen makes almost as strong an impression as Nai Nai, and the chemistry between them is painful and joyous at the same time. The rest of the cast each get moments to shine, but these two ladies are the stars all the way. The film is part drama, party melancholy comedy, going for genuine smiles rather than forced belly laughs. The humor comes very organically out of the moment, and laughter and tears often come at the very same time in a way  is low key and truthful. In fact, ironically for a movie about lying, The Farewell may be the most honest film of the year.

The ending hit me hard in a very different way than I expected, and I am still reeling from it. This a film that raises complex questions about how and why we live life the way we do, and is wise enough not to try for concrete answers. It's a beautifully and sobering look at what makes us human, and expertly balances a very heavy situation with a lightweight sense of charm and love. Despite rave reviews, it is hard to imagine this quiet little indie feature being remembered for major awards consideration at the end of the year, but it's going to stick with me for a long time.

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