Review - The Farewell
'Based on a True Lie' is the introduction to the film. A phrase that carries sincerity to it, reassuring that this is going to be some a bit more complex for the typical audience.
Lulu Wang created a bittersweet semi-autobiography about her family and the lie they make to her grandmother, Nai Nai, portrayed by Shenzhen Zhao after she gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
The Farewell follows the same premise, with Awkwafina playing Billi, a counterpart role for Wang herself. In the film, once Nai Nai's diagnosis becomes known to the rest of the family, the Wangs chose to not reveal to her the amount of time left, to save her from the psychological pain it would cost.
To bring the whole family together one last time before Nai Nai's demise, they plan a fake wedding for Billi's cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen) with his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), with less than a weeks' notice.
For Billi, it would be her first time visiting China for 25 years, as she used to live there with her whole family, and had a strong relationship with her grandmother, which still remains one of her most vital bonds. But her parents, played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, do not approve of her involvement to the lie, as she would not understand the logic and be too emotionally vulnerable in order to be calm around her grandmother.
Billi defines them and heads to China to see her beloved Nai Nai again, but also to return to the life she solely missed, as her current life in the US doesn't seem promising.
Upon arrival, Billi does not have the same connection to her homeland as she remembered. This is now a land that is both familiar and strange. The only part that remains the same is Nai Nai, as her only real beacon to her past life.
Even though Nai Nai is uplifted on Billi's surprise visit, the rest of the family is not, with their initial reaction being frustration and nervousness of Billi spilling the truth to the matriarch leader of the bloodline.
Billi plays along with the lie, even though she questions the nature of it. That is one of the biggest focuses in the film, as all the characters (including the doctors themselves) support the lie because it is a regular practice in Chinese culture. Saving the misery and fear of death from your loved one, because it is the duty of the family and the community to burden the suffering, instead of the one who is going to die.
This practice baffles Billi due to her American upbringing, as her Chinese relatives say. A theme that becomes more visible throughout the span of the film. Even though they all were born in China, most of them left the country for bigger opportunities, but they came with the cost of leaving their home, family and basically their lives.
One particular scene emphasizes that with the family having dinner, and several members are discussing the difference of culture and way of life between China and America. Some saying that finding success in China is very easy and others saying that in the US you can follow your passion. Leading to a heated conversation and argument that ends with no one on top.
Sometimes the film reminds me of Lost in Translation, the concept of a foreigner in a foreign land, although in this case, Billi is the foreigner to a land she was born to. She is treated like a tourist by the hotel staff, being embarrassed about her non-fluent Mandarin, and the radical contractual changes of the city since she was gone.
The film is filled with melancholia to Billi's heritage, massively fueled by her attachment to Nai Nai, but also to the things and people she did not have the chance to say farewell to during her time in the US.
There is a scene where Billi lays out all her feelings to her mother, which is brilliantly performed by Awkwafina, with her own sorrow for all the losses that have happened and the one that is close. The meltdown happens in a room with her cousin and his girlfriend sitting, with no overwhelming score or over-the-top dialogue. A scene that truly made the audience like a fly on a wall, just witnessing a real-life personal moment.
That is one of few sequences which made the film feel relatable. It is not a typical big-budget blockbuster with a Disney-like perspective to a family reunion in an "exotic" country. Something that Lulu Wang has been turning down for years while developing the project. She wanted to say her story about her family in her own way.
Besides the dramatic elements, there is strong comedy in it too. The family dynamic is resilient enough to create entertaining comedic moments on both cringe-worthy and intelligent timing. All backed by a strong script supported by the culture of the place and the perspective of Billi, like the use of subtitles from her own knowledge and meaning to what she understands.
The cast is superb to all their individual roles, each carrying the lie in their own way. Biggest standouts are Awkwafina as she shines in the best performance in her acting career so far, being always present to provide a complex emotional subtext.
But the shout out goes to Shenzhen Zhao, with this role being her first-ever one-screen acting work, playing Nai Nai with so much love and sincerity, that I never doubted her unconditional love and care for her family, especially Billi.
The Farewell is one of the most beautiful and honest films of the year, with Lulu Wang truly shining as both a filmmaker and ambassador to all immigrated generations. A film that is as bittersweet as it is complex to its themes of heritage, national identity and the gap of cultures.
A profound piece of work that should be studied in film schools and universities. Take your grandmas with you and cry. Together.