If there are a couple things we all have in common, it’s that we’re all born into a family, and have all felt some form of disconnect at some point in our lives, and Lulu Wang intends to connect audiences of all backgrounds with The Farewell, an honest and heartfelt story about her family and experiences as an Asian American. Open-minded viewers are sure to enjoy her debut feature because it tells a compelling story about how a family remains connected despite their physical disconnection, and does so with inspired visuals, strong performances from its ensemble cast, a screenplay packed with ideas about the Chinese culture, and direction that leaves crowds laughing at one moment and wondering what secrets they’re keeping in the next.
An Asian-American woman must reconnect with her roots upon learning her grandmother is dying in the feature directorial debut from Lulu Wang.
The portrayal of Asian American culture in the medium of cinema has always carried one consistent element in every story, and that’s the familial pressures to succeed, and their lasting effects. It was explored in Justin Lin’s 2002 debut feature Better Luck Tomorrow, where its protagonists chose to escape them by going into a life of small crime, and once again in the big-budget adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians, where lead character Rachel Chu was tormented by the absurd expectations of her boyfriend’s overbearing mother.
The anxiety makes its presence felt on-screen once again in The Farewell, the new release from independent film distributor A24, and the debut feature film from Asian-American filmmaker Lulu Wang. Based on her personal life experiences (or a lie actually told in the film’s words), the film succeeds in cementing Wang as a filmmaker on the rise, and solidifying The Farewell as an early candidate for the best movie of the year so far thanks to a strong screenplay, a nuanced, powerful lead performance from Awkwafina, and a creative visual style.
The Farewell follows Billi (Awkwafina), an Asian-American living as an aspiring writer in New York City whose life takes a turn for the struggling when she receives a rejection letter from a fellowship for which she applied. Things get more complicated when her mother and father (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma, respectively) inform her that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of terminal lung cancer and only has a few months left to live. Billi’s parents and their extended family elect not to tell Nai Nai the full extent of her diagnosis with a long-standing belief that the fear of having the disease would kill her more than the cancer ever would.
Therefore, in order to say their goodbyes to Nai Nai without telling her the extent of her diagnosis, arrange a wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend of three months Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) and venture to their home city of Changchun in China for it, ordering Billi to stay in America out of fear she would accidentally let the secret of Nai Nai’s diagnosis slip. Billi remains defiant, however, and travels to Changchun in hopes of reuniting with her extended family, exploring her homeland, and seeing her closest relative in Nai Nai for the final time.
The strongest filmmaking aspects of The Farewell are Lulu Wang’s weighty screenplay and assured direction, both of which bestow an eye-opening look into the philosophies of Asian culture. Early in the family reunion, Billi learns that in traditional Chinese families, one’s life is part of a greater whole, that being the family unit. If one isn’t in sync with everyone else involved or living up to each other’s expectations, they risk facing disappointment and anger amongst their relatives.
This provides the reasoning for the familial pressures being a prevalent trope of Asian cinema for so long, but The Farewell takes it a step further to show their lasting effects on Billi’s immediate and extended families, with their depiction playing out in ways that are hilarious in one scene, yet tragic in the next. An example comes when the family leaves assorted fruits and objects at the gravestone of Nai Nai’s deceased husband only to banter over whether or not to peel the fruits or even light cigarettes for his spirit to enjoy. It is there where Nai Nai leads the family in prayer for each family member to have good fortune and success, to bows from her descendants behind her that never sync in full unison.
There is an abyss of secrets being kept within Billi’s fractured family along with preconceived notions: her extended family have the belief that because she lives in America, she’s super successful when in reality, and based on that, her aunt announces her intention to send her son Bao to America for college to mixed reactions: Billi insists that America is a nation with its own problems and imperfections while other relatives argue that China is a fine place to get a higher education. But while Billi withholds the secret that she got rejected from her fellowship from her family, viewers are left to wonder what other members of her family have secrets of their own.
An example comes when Nai Nai forces Hao Hao and his bride into an affectionate photo, Wang’s camera lingers on the newlyweds long enough for audiences to not only feel the awkwardness of their situation, but also left to wonder how much they love each other. Another instance comes in an intimate moment where Nai Nai is coughing heavily as she ambles into her bedroom and sits on her bed in a wide shot that isolates her within her doorway, leaving us to not only feel sympathy for her, but also to give the audience time to wonder if she knows she’s in more pain than her family is leading her to believe.The disconnection among Billi’s family isn’t just conveyed in the film’s screenplay, however. Wang frames her characters in unique shot-reverse-shots that separates two characters having a conversation in their own shots to manifest the separation between them, while the wide shot establishing their conversation leaves a character in the background out of focus. Meanwhile, after breaking out in supporting roles as the comic relief in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina turns in a nuanced but powerful lead performance as Billi, who spends the movie comprehending the standards of her home culture with quiet resolve that breaks down to genuine emotion in the film’s most private moments, as she strives to understand the reasons for her family holding onto their unconventional traditions. But in spending time with Nai Nai, Billi experiences moments of relief, and Awkwafina channels it with naturalist, charming joy.
If there are any issues with The Farewell, it’s that the ending comes on an anti-climactic note, and the visual motif of birds, while compelling, doesn’t have enough of a presence as it should. It’s worth mentioning that at least seventy percent of the movie is in Mandarin with English subtitles, of which some audiences might find their use distracting. But they’re ultimately necessary in reinforcing Wang’s ultimate goal in her debut feature: to give audiences an honest look into the traditions, ideas and lifestyles of her own personal culture, and she succeeds in telling her true story with an endearing flair for naturalism. Audiences will ponder if characters are hiding something or really mean it when they say they’re fine, and will leave the film wanting to learn more about not only their ancestry and where their family’s beliefs come from, but also about cultures outside of their own. In a world where society is growing more divided by the day, Wang aims to connect us with a heartfelt piece of cinema, and if audiences are open-minded when they seek out The Farewell, they won’t want to leave its world when it’s over.