Saturday 7 September 2019

Film Review: The Farewell

Director Lulu Wang grapples with the complexities of family in her new film, The Farewell.

Moving from China to the States at a young age,  headstrong student Billi (Awkwafina) is shocked to discover that her family's beloved matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. With Nai Nai given only a matter of weeks to live, the family decides to hide the truth from her, and instead orchestrates an elaborate wedding, giving Billi and her parents an excuse to head back to China and see Nai Nai one last time.

This doesn't sit right with Billi. Having grown up in the States, she finds the idea of hiding the truth from Nai Nai upsetting and cruel – but her extended family is insistent that Nai Nai mustn't know about her tragic diagnosis.

The Farewell presents a classic clashing of cultures; east meets west, young meets old. It also deftly captures the complexity of family; the contradictions and the vying agendas that jostle around the dinner table or in the kitchen.

The film moves through a myriad of emotions, with some scenes turning from joy and delight to despair and sorrow on a dime. Wang's dialogue wonderfully captures the gentle tug-of-war between Billi and her more traditional elders. The characters are so well drawn and immediately engaging, without indulging in overblown melodrama.

At its core is the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai. Awkwafina is best known for playing the goofy sidekick in stuff like Ocean's 8 or Crazy Rich Asians, and the ability to transition from that to the muted, grounded character work here is impressive. The warmth and rapport she shares with Zhao makes Wang's film all the more heartbreaking and emotional.

More than anything, Wang's film captures the unique homesickness that comes with being an immigrant. It might be rooted in the Asian diaspora and deal with Asian ideals and values, but The Farewell speaks to anyone who is separated from their family – myself included.

The scene where Billi bids a final farewell to her beloved Nai Nai, unsure if or when she would see her again, felt less like a story I was being shown and more like a memory I was able to recall. I've been there, in her shoes. Sharing those same feelings. Crying those same tears.

The Verdict: 9/10

A raw and authentic look at family dynamics and the immigrant experience. It's been a week since I saw this film and the power in its ending is still rattling around inside by head. It looks gorgeous and is very well-acted. Awkwafina should be in the Oscars conversation.

The Farewell is in cinemas across Australia now.

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