Published Jul 17, 2019For years, director Lulu Wang's family has been withholding her grandmother's terminal cancer diagnosis from herself, a story that earned Wang international attention when she shared it on a 2016 episode of This American Life. It's now the basis of her second feature film, The Farewell, which tells a complex, culturally specific tale with slow-burning style that skilfully weaves in family drama, cultural commentary and plenty of humour to highlight the universality of these experiences.
Wang's stand-in is protagonist Billi, portrayed by rising star Awkwafina, a 30-something struggling writer whose low-income NYC lifestyle puts her directly at odds with her strict parents, who immigrated to the States from China when Billi was a kid. The differences between Billi and her parents are thrust into the spotlight when they tell her about her grandmother's cancer diagnosis — which, of course, her grandmother knows nothing about — and impending trip to China to say goodbye, ostensibly for a cousin's wedding, to which Billi tags along.
The cultural friction drives the film's conflict — Billi's parents fear that her "American" emotions will ruin the ruse — and the film's pacing gives these concepts time to breathe, with several roundtable discussions that serve to directly discuss differences between Chinese and American culture. Most of the film is in Mandarin, and Billi's journey in The Farewell deals with the increasingly common reality of how children of immigrant families struggle to bridge the gap between the traditions and customs of a far-away culture and homogenized American life. It's an important topic that requires delicate care and authenticity to properly explore, and Wang and company pull it off expertly.
Awkwafina, the rapper and actress who was the breakout star of last year's Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8, is the perfect star for the film as a familiar face to serve as an audience surrogate, while also showcasing some strong dramatic chops. The Farewell hones in on specific elements of Chinese culture in a way that speaks to broader experiences of a diversifying world. The fact that it's helmed by a recognizable star — which will surely boost its profile — is a sign of the world of possibilities that a diversifying film industry holds moving forward.
All of it is set to an eerily still slice of life that gives plenty of exploration to the film's extended cast of characters, including Billi's recovering alcoholic father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), and the reluctant groom, cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han). Wang's script covers a lot of ground in its 98 minutes, and does so by exploring its compelling central conflict through character instead of action. Watching the cast weave through the various conflicts and situations delivers ample tension.
The Farewell will make you laugh, cry and call your oldest living relative — by slowing things down, it draws out plenty of emotion. Combined with its vital, complex perspectives, it's likely to stand as a watershed moment for international cinema in North America.