EXPECTATIONS: A stellar, wholesome family dramedy.
REVIEW: No matter what language the film is, no matter what country the film is set in, no matter what genre the film is adhering to, if there is one universal theme that everyone can relate to, it is the theme of family. In the scope of Hollywood, the prototypical family film consists of Caucasians. But in terms of representations outside of the norm, the scope becomes rather limited.
Which is why the existence of a film like The Farewell is such a sterling example to cherish. Equipped with an interesting premise that is packed with dramatic possibilities; showing a refreshing outlook into a family of Chinese background through potent themes — grief, togetherness, loyalty, love, loss — while providing the perfect springboard for director Lulu Wang — in bringing her personal directorial eye to conveying Chinese culture — as well as Awkwafina making her dramatic debut in her first leading role; after many comedic supporting roles.
Based on an actual lie from director Wang’s past, the film follows Billi, a Chinese-American woman who is seemingly content with her life, and yet inside, she is hiding from her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that she is struggling to make ends meet as well as her position in her studies. Her only reprieve from the stress of her life is her interactions with her grandmother, played by Zhao Shuzhen (endearing called Nai Nai, which means ‘grandma’ in Mandarin).
But tragic news strikes when Nai Nai is diagnosed with cancer, without her foreknowledge. Hoping to shoulder the emotional burden of Nai Nai, Billi’s family returns to China under the guise of a fake wedding to covertly say goodbye. As the plan progresses, Billi is conflicted with her loyalty to her family and her love for Nai Nai that it becomes quite clear that one question comes to her mind as well as the audience: will she tell Nai Nai of her affliction?
The Farewell is a heartwarming, funny and tender piece of work that manages to wear its emotions proudly while maintaining a remarkable sense of simplicity and precision that makes the story relatable, engaging and universal for any filmgoer. For a film such as this to work, to adeptly mix in both comedy and drama harmoniously, is to have a filmmaker with an assured handling of tones and emotions. Thankfully, writer/director Wang is more than up to the task.
Never relying on script contrivances or histrionics (except for one scene, which actually makes an amusing joke out of histrionic crying) and relying more on character and action, Wang is able to make a film that effortlessly conveys so much, by seemingly showing its hand so little. One example why the drama works so well is how the film contrasts the upbringings of both Billi (being more transgressive) and her mother (being more traditional), in terms of the generational and environmental differences on how they both handle emotion and how they both conflict with one another.
Another reason why the film works so well is how Wang’s ability in capturing the gradual escalation of the turmoil within the characters, in both dramatic and comedic terms. Dealing with their grief either though denial, off-hand humour (which involves criticism of materialism in China) or swaying through potential conflicts of prejudice that have very little relevance to the overall issue as an outlet for stress (characters bringing up how children are brought up in China or America); characters are shown as full-blooded human beings, as opposed to being either screenwriting constructs or cartoonish portrayals.
The production values also give the film a much-needed punch, as the alternatively pristine and quaint cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano and the melodic musical score by Alex Weston both manage to compliment the weight of the plot complications in the story (ie. the drama and struggle of the characters) as well as lifting the positive spirit of the storytelling as it follows through in portraying the beauty of family togetherness.
Last and definitely not least is the acting from the cast, who all give exemplary performances. They all manage to convey distinct portrayals of grief, anxiety with both comedic and dramatic aplomb. Standouts from the supporting cast include Jiang Yongbo (touching as Billi’s doting uncle who does his best in shouldering the burden), Chen Han (amusingly timid as Billi’s cousin), Diana Lin (compellingly stern as Billi’s mother) and Tzi Ma (engagingly pensive as Billi’s father).
But the main attractions from the cast are Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen. Awkwafina manages to expand her acting range by being convincing as someone who looks like she is about to implode with all the tumultuous moods she has to keep in check. Striking the perfect balance in being conflicted both with filial piety and loving devotion, it’s a fantastic dramatic debut. Zhao is pitch-perfect as the matriarch of the family by managing to convey the boundless spirit and the nurturing demeanour with remarkable ease.
Sweet, comforting, heartfelt and funny, The Farewell is a fantastic piece of work that brings a fresh viewpoint into family via Chinese culture and showcases the talents of Wang’s filmmaking talents as well as Awkwafina‘s acting chops. Highly recommended.
This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei
Director: Lulu Wang
Screenwriters: Lulu Wang