The Farewell (2019) Review
BASED ON AN ACTUAL LIE
Hollywood has certainly taking a “tentpole stigma” with many of its releases; finding a great majority of prominent studios of Tinseltown sticking to their guns of what’s “hip” and “popular” with current trend of moviegoers. There are the usual summer blockbusters that create plenty of fanfare (dominated recently by superhero genre or large scale action / epics), the raunchy comedies features that strive with jokes and gags a plenty, the heavy-hitting drama motion pictures that are customary for the upcoming award season contenders (i.e Oscar-bait), the generic horror flicks that have too many “jump scares” and not enough plot, the animated films that have plenty zany fun (as well as sometimes heart) within its cartoon premise, and so on and so forth. Of course, there are “hidden gems” that are tucked away within each year’s schedule movie releases; finding these movies to be low-key in anticipation, but is met with stellar and profound praise. Now, A24 Studios and director Lulu Wang presents one of the hidden gems of 2019 with the movie The Farewell. Does the film prove its worth within its personal story or is it all arthouse and no substance?
Billi Wang (Awkwafina) is a 30-year old New Yorker who is struggling to find her direction in life. She’s shares a normal relationship with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), but still can’t figure out herself, recently turned down for a fellowship opportunity she desperately wanted. When her Chinese grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, Billi learns that her extended family is choosing not to tell their family matriarch about her limited prognosis, electing to stage a wedding for Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), and his new girlfriend as a way to bring the family clan to China and enjoy Nai Nai’s company for one last time. While they fear Billi will be the first to break the illusion in front Nai Nai, Billi reluctantly joins the scheme, trying to downplay her emotions as they all watch their grandmother enjoy the unexpected reunion while she deals with unresolved feelings concerning her birthplace and current living situation.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Whether you want to believe or not, the current pop culture trend has always played an instrumental part of the creation of many cinematic filmmaking endeavors. Well, at least I think so. Of course, movies studios will certainly “cater” to the masses by producing feature films that will bring in “big money” at the box office, which will then fund their studio for other smaller upcoming projects. It’s a certain “big risk, big reward” type of endeavor and that sometimes pays off, while others time it doesn’t. Because of this, there are plenty of movies release (each year) that pretty much the “same old, same old” from a variety of categories. So, it’s quite hard to find a “hidden gem” in amongst the sea of predictable / big tentpole feature films.
This brings me back to talking about The Farewell, a 2019 movie that sees to combine family drama with nuances of the Asian culture / dynamics. I honestly didn’t hear much about this movie when it was first announced. So, I was kind of surprised by it when I first saw the film’s movie trailer when I went to see Rocketman in theaters (back in May 2019). It looked quite different from both movies that have been released recently in the 2019 movie line-up and for a film that actress Awkwafina would participate in. So, I was immediately curious to see the movie when it got released during August of 2019. My interest for seeing The Farewell grew as I heard a lot of (and I do mean a lot) of positive advance reviews; praising the movie as one of the best motion pictures of 2019. So, with a headline like that, I was very keen on seeing The Farewell during its time of release. Unfortunately, it wasn’t playing that much at any of my local nearby movie theaters, but I did catch (on a Wednesday matinee afternoon showing) before it was pulled from its theatrical run. However, I kept on pushing on doing my review in favor of more prominent ones (again…trying to play “catch up” with my reviews). So, I finally have the time to share my thoughts on The Farewell. And what did I think of it? Well, it was really good. Despite a flew artistic choices and nuances, The Farewell is heartwarming and sincere cinematic tale that has plenty of soul and heart within its family dynamics. It’s not truly the greatest movie of the year as some are making it out to be, but the film still miles above many of the 2019 releases, especially since this was considered a “hidden gem” of the year.
The Farewell is directed by Lulu Wang, whose previous directorial works include such projects as Posthumous, Can-Can, and Burke and Herb. While not necessarily a well-known director, Wang certainly know how to capture a cinematic story and demonstrates that notion quite beautifully in the movie’s overall presentation. One could possibly say that The Farewell is a sort of “passion project” for Wang as the film’s story is based in part of her life experiences, which she first shared as a part of her radio show “What You Don’t Know”, which appeared as a part of an episode of This American Life in April 2016. Thus, Wang imbues The Farewell with a certain type of love and respect as sort of intimate look into this family drama. With Wang at the helm, the director takes a somewhat realistic approach to this project, with the film (as a whole) having a more downplay at heightened cinematic aspects. What do I mean? There’s flashy / glossy look of movie’s setting, there’s no catchy and / or popular songs (sung by a famous musical current artists) interjected the movie, and the film is quite steadily focused on the story’s main crux, which is Billi and Nai Nai. Thus, Wang makes The Farewell a very small, but very personal “grounded” film that hones in on story without the entanglement of unnecessary flourishes or side-stories; keeping the movie on a steady path from start to finish.
Along with directing The Farewell, Wang plays “double duty” on the feature; shaping the feature’s script, which seems understandable due to her personal life experiences influencing the movie’s narrative (as mentioned above). Within the script, Wang approach the film’s narrative with a sense of family dynamics being the utmost paramount to the project as well as examining the Asian culture and the ideal difference between East and West. Thus, even looking beyond the story of the family saying goodbye to their grandmother, Wang imbues the movie with a sense of respect for the Asian culture; exploring a person’s identity (i.e. Billi) through such trying times.
At the heart of The Farewell, the core central narrative is quite heartfelt and moving, with a family dealing with the death of the eldest member of their clan, who doesn’t know of her terminal illness with her family gathering together for a faux wedding celebration. To me, this is quite the most interesting aspect of the film’s story and really does have a strong commentary message at its emotional center. Everyone, despite age, gender, race, nationality, social status, religious belief, or political opinions, the effects of death, dying, and the passing of love ones affects us all; defining the finality of our lives and those around us and how we deal with. The movie’s story takes a poignant and curious take on the death of love on, with having the family not letting Nai Nai know of her condition and letting her to live the remainder of her life in a sort of blissful ignorance. Perhaps that’s why the movie has the strongest emotions, with many viewers “connection” with Nai Nai’s family on how they feel when interreacting with their ill grandmother. I mean serious…as yourself the question…. if you knew that a family member or personal love one was terminally sick (and they don’t know about it) …. would you tell them? Questions for the philosophers out there….
The presentation of The Farewell isn’t the most “glamourous” one, but, much like Wang’s intention, displays the film’s in a more realistic fashion; giving the feature’s background setting are very natural realism look rather than a glossy Hollywood finish. Thus, the authenticity of the real world is heavily established within its various settings and locations (both exterior and interior set-pieces) in the city lifestyle of Changchun, China, which the film shot on location for 24 days as well as in New York City; juxtaposition the differences between East and West cultures of which Wang demonstrates. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” key players, including W. Haley Ho (art direction), Yong Ko Lee (production designs), Joseph Sorelle and Hanrui Wang (set decorations), and Vanesa Porter and Athena Wang (costume designs), definitely bring this concept to life; creating very “real world” environment that feels real and genuine for the modern Chinese lifestyles. Lastly, while the film’s score by Alex Weston has its moments of tenderness that resonate with the some of the scenes, I wasn’t too impressed with it, which is a little disappointing. It gets the job done, but I think it could’ve been better handled with a bit more better composition pieces.
Despite the movie having a very heartwarming and interesting premise, The Farewell does have a few criticisms that weigh the feature down from reaching its potential. Of course, the movie has been receiving a tremendous amount of praise and, while it’s something worth seeing, I personally think that the movie is not feels lacks in certain areas. Perhaps one that is the most is in the various characters that make up Billi’s extended family members. There’s a lot to say about these characters as the film’s script presents a lot of sub plots with each one in either connected to the relationship with Billi or Nai Nai. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t delve deep enough into some of these side stories; lacking substance in these particular areas and leaves a lot of unsaid / unresolved character moments and piece left dangling by the time the movie reaches its end. I feel like the movie wanted to say more, but didn’t know how to present it correctly without going off on a tangent.
Additionally, the movie has that “arthouse” feel that sometimes doesn’t work quite well. What do I mean? Well, it’s kind of hard to say, but its one of the movies that feels like a small indie / arthouse project that permeates throughout much of the feature’s runtime. Whether it’s the elongated moments of holding a scene for too long, the direction of camera effects (and its presentation), or the simple fact of not adding much “zip” to the proceedings, The Farewell is more of an arthouse picture than a Hollywood feature, which was probably handled by the film’s cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano. It’s kind of that feeling I got when I saw The Revenant. It’s good, but it just has that arthouse style and effect that kind of rubs me the wrong way. So, some people might like that, while others won’t. I personal fall into the latter category. It’s just a matter of cinematic personal opinions.
What definitely overlooks a lot of this is The Farewell’s cast, which, while some characters are bit of lacking in substance (of their characters builds) the acting talents that portrayed certainly do elevate them beyond the film’s story. Perhaps one of the most remarkable and terrific part of the cast is actually Awkwafina, who plays The Farewell’s central protagonist character of Billi Wang, Awkwafina (i.e Nora Lum), known for her roles in Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and Jumanji: The Next Level, has certainly made a new for herself; a certain herself as a rising actress that’s become a household everywhere. However, Awkwafina has always been a supporting character of sorts and usually plays the “loudmouth” one of the film as well as appearing more lighthearted / comedy features. So, I was quite surprised to see her in (and playing the main character) in The Farewell; fearing that the young and upcoming actress won’t be adapt to the more grounded story and characters of the feature. Surprisingly, however, Awkwafina does a tremendously solid job in the movie; delivering a stirring and grounded performance as Billi throughout every scene in the movie. Awkwafina demonstrates a sense of realism (much like Wang’s direction) within Billi and a viewer can honestly (and wholeheartedly) feel the all the emotions that she has to carry; projecting a riveting performance. This also includes the more inner dilemma of young person’s life of family dynamics, the clash of West vs. East cultures, and finding purpose in amidst a tremulous time in a person’s life. All in all, Awkwafina gives one of the best performances of her career in The Farewell and she certainly shows how much the young talent has to offer for possible future roles of this caliber.
Beyond Awkwafina’s Bill, actress Zhao Shuzhen, known for her roles in The Story of Ming Lan, delivers a solid performance in the role of Nai Nai, the main matriarch of the family of whom the film’s narrative centers around. There’s a certain sublimeness that Shuzhen brings to the character; making Nai Nai a true delight to watch on-screen as she provides a lot of the film’s comedy-esque moments in The Farewell as well as grandmotherly tenderness; completely oblivious to the fatal illness that is consume her and why her entire family is truly gathered. Plus, the scenes with her and Awkwafina are quite touching.
The rest of the cast, including actress Diana Lin (The Family Law and Piano Mums) as Billi’s Mother Lu Jian, actor Tzi Ma (Rush Hour and The Man in the High Castle) as Billi’s father Haiyan Wang, actress Hong Lu as Nai Nai’s younger sister named Little Nai Nai, actor Jiang Yongbo (Caught in the Web and There Will Be Ample Time) as Haiyan’s older brother Haibin, actor Chen Han (Evil Minds and From Where We’re Fallen) as Haibin’s son Hao Hao, actress Aoi Mizuhara (Break Through! and Cairo Declaration), actress Zhang Jing (The Foliage and Hell-World Jungle) as Haiyan’s cousin Yuping, actress Li Xang (Almost Perfect and The Warlords) as Haibin’s wife Aunty Ling, are in supporting roles that make up the Billi and Nai Nai’s family. As mentioned above, some of these characters could’ve been easily fleshed out a bit more, but the acting talents that play are solid, especially since all are Asian descendent, with no hint of the movie “whitewashing” its characters to cater to a more Eastern American audiences. Like Crazy Rich Asians, I do like the idea of an all-Asian cast and I welcomed more films like with its diverse cultural cast.
The ideas of family and loss of love ones go hand-in hand as Billi tries to find the courage to say goodbye to her grandmother without let her know of her impending death in the movie The Farewell. Director Lulu Wang’s latest film takes a very personal look at a family’s dilemma of dealing with their clan’s matriarch (and her soon to be death); clashing with different cultures and decisions that shape within a realistic and authentic way. While the movie’s arthouse appeal can be a bit of turn off for some (including myself) and certain aspects were totally fleshed (lacking substance in a few), the rest of the film displays plenty of heart and wholesome overture of family struggles during a time of dealing with an impending loss, which is praised by the film’s story, the depiction of the Asian culture, and the solid cast, especially Awkwafina and Shuzhen. Personally, I liked the movie. There were a few problems that I had with and, while it isn’t incredible fantastic as some are making it out to be, it’s still quite and moving and heartfelt motion picture that deserves its sincere respect for both its narrative story and culture aspects. Plus, as I said, Awkwafina was terrific in it. Thus, my recommendation for the movie is a solid “highly recommended” as it offers a look at family, death, and finding yourself amongst those dynamics. In the end, if you’re looking for something different from the usual “norm” tentpoles of superhero blockbusters, violent horrors, raunchy comedies, animated features, and the “page to screen” variety of Hollywood endeavors, The Farwell is your answer; presenting a bittersweet and engaging family drama of love, identity, and family.
4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: August 9th, 2019
Reviewed On: January 6th, 2020
The Farewell is 98 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic material, brief language, and some smoking
Having 6 daughters I have enough family drama and one crisis after another (curling iron stopped working, Billy broke up with Jenny, cell data limit reached, the list goes on) that I avoid family drama movies. But, your review was great as always and might be worth just checking it out if I stumble across it one night on Netflix.
This one was actually a huge surprise for me and ended up being my best film of 2019. Great Review