Billi (Awkwafina) ambles a little aimlessly through her life in New York, waiting and hoping for an acceptance from an art university. When her Chinese grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), with whom Billi is very close, is discovered to have only little time left to live, her parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) fly to China. Billi follows, unable to stay behind, although she does have a hard time with the family decision to not tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis. To explain why the entire family is gathered, a wedding for Billi’s cousin (Han Chen) is arranged instead.
The Farewell is a beautiful film. Touching and emotional, it manages to be funny and tender at the same time – and also very insightful about life, death and family.
The Farewell is an intercultural comedy. There are generally many of those, but most, unfortunately, are nothing more than a long list of clichés. Fortunately, The Farewell isn’t one of those films – instead it is obvious that there is somebody at work here who knows, understands and appreciates both the USAmerican and the Chinese perspective, and most importantly also knows what it means to be part of either and neither at the same time. (The film is based on Wang’s actual family and experiences, so this doesn’t really come as a surprise.)
But the film is not satisfied with tackling just that (as if that wasn’t enough). It also looks at what both cultures make of life, death, and family. The meaning we give those three things is both universal and completely specific and Wang really gets to the point of things here in a beautiful and true way.
Awkwafina is excellent as Billi and it’s nice to see her be more than the comic relief that she usually gets to be (it also means that there is no trace of the blaccent she usually puts on and that brought her a lot of criticism already). But the real star here is Shuzhen Zhao whose charismatic presence is the grounding the film needs with all its bustle. But really, the entire cast is excellent. It’s also thanks to them that Wang’s film is a masterclass in characterizing the entire family with glances, small touches and gestures. You learn so much about everyone just by the way people look at each other, it’s astounding.
I was a little tired the day I saw it, therefore the slow pace did start to drag around the wedding. But the film and I found our footing with each other again, and I left it entirely satisfied.