Dealing with a terminal illness can devastate a family both financially and emotionally. It has to be decided who is going to take the reins and guide the family through the crisis. The Farewell is a film that deals with just that. We meet a beloved mother/grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) who has terminal cancer, but she thinks it’s just a cold. Her sister is her main caregiver and has kept the diagnosis of terminal cancer from her.
Nai Nai lives in China, whereas her two sons left the country years ago to better these families. Haibun (Juang Yongbo) moved his family to Japan and his brother, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), moved his family to America. The two brothers agree to keep the cancer news from their sweet mother. And It is a tradition in China to do so. Haibun says that it is their family’s duty to bear the emotional burden for her. As an excuse for both the families to go to China and secretly say their good-byes to Nai Nai, the brothers decide to stage a wedding between Hibun’s son, the rather slow Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his brand-new girlfriend.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a struggling writer living in New York City. She is behind on her rent and is betting on a grant to help her survive. She is extremely close to her grandmother. They talk on a daily basis several times a day. And in the first scene that we see Billi, she is walking on the streets of New York City talking to her grandmother. Her grandmother is giving her advice on how to find a man, to wear warm clothing so she won’t get a cold, and for her not to wear earrings (because Nai Nai has heard thieves will rip them right off Billi’s ears).
Billi is her grandmother’s favorite, and the feeling is mutual. We soon learn that the relationship between Billi and her own mother, Jian (Diana Lin), is not as warm as Jian has a cold and practical outlook on how things should work. We see this at a family dinner early in the film. Most of the family, including Billi and her father, are having a great time, cracking jokes and laughing about silly things. Billi’s mother though doesn’t see the humor and chastises her for not being married and for her wanting to be a writer instead of a housewife. It seems that Billi has the support of everyone in the family but her mother.
Billi gets the news that she did not give the grant which crushes her. And her world is further turned upside down when she goes over to her parent’s house for dinner that night. There, she notices that her father is drunk and that both her parents have somber looks on their faces. She follows her father into her parent’s bedroom and demands to be told what is wrong. Her father tells Billi about his mothers terminal cancer, and that they are not going to tell her about it. Billi objects to this, thinking that her grandmother would want to know so that she can put her affairs in order. Her mom enters the room and tells’ Billi of the plan to stage the wedding in China. They want her to stay behind because she is too emotional to pretend everything is okay. Naturally, Billy strongly objects but then acquiesces. And after having time to think, Billi decides she is going to go to China. She is going to say good-bye to her grandmother, parents be damned.
The Farewell is based on writer/director Lulu Wang’s own experiences with her family. When her family flew back to China to say good-bye to Lulu’s grandmother, they made the decision not to tell her about the cancer that was going to kill her.
The Farewell Review: The Characters
Most of the characters are based on Wang’s family and even a couple of her family members in China play themselves. Wang has brought us a wonderful movie that explores both the evolving dynamics of a family but also brings up the idea of keeping bad news from family members. He askes the question does it do more damage to tell someone’s bad news or is it better to keep it from them? At one point while the family is in China, Billi brings up the fact that it would be illegal in the states to not inform a patient that they have cancer. In China, it is legal not to tell them. And the doctors go along with it. They even create false documents to show the patient that everything is ok.
The heart of this film is Billi. Awkwafina gives a touching and moving performance that makes me excited to see her work in the future. We know that she has the comedic chops having played hysterical characters in Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. But I was pleasantly surprised at how much range she has. Yes, there are a few times that she gets to be humorous. However, for most of the film she has to show a huge depth of emotion and boy, does she carry it off. Unlike her comedic roles, the role of Billi was one that at times was full of grief. But at other times, her character had to show constraint and keep those emotions bottled up, because Billi couldn’t let her grandmother see her grief. It’s a dazzling performance that few actors in Hollywood could pull off with such sensibility and nuance.
The rest of the cast gives excellent performances as well with Tzi Ma, giving his usual steady performance. He plays the father, who is trying to keep his family from falling apart as each member is grieving. Dianna Lin gives an outstanding performance too as the seemly hard as nails mother who believes in tradition at all costs. Chen Han provides some comic relief as the goofy, slightly stupid son who is being forced to marry a woman he barely knows. There is a very funny scene at the wedding reception, where his character, Hao Hao, is participating in a drinking game, and he is the only one to mess up each time. Eventually, he drinks so much that it causes him to pass out at his own wedding.
The Farewell Review: Overall
While being a movie about someone with cancer and the grieving that it brings, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is more about a family and how those relationships can change for the better. All it takes is just listening to each other and trying to grow from our own experiences. We will know that at some point in our life we will lose people that are important to us. And we can only hope that we will have the support of family members to get through the process. In Billi’s case, she learns that she does have that support and is better for it.
The Farewell Review
My Rating: Full Price
Mike’s Movie Rating System From Best to Worst
I Would Pay to See it Again
You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again