"The Farewell" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Lulu Wang
Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma and Diana Lin

‘A Heartfelt Family Drama’

It is always hard to come to terms with the death of a loved one. Whether it is a family member or close friend, learning that someone you love is going to die is a painful experience. However, there is nothing more excruciating than keeping the death a secret in the family. In Chinese culture, families deal with the issue of death in a different way than in the West. When elderly relatives are about to die, the family must keep it a secret from them. Instead of openly grieving, family members are expected to keep it together and hide their emotions. The reasoning behind this is that it is easier to accept a lie than come to terms with the truth.

This is the intriguing premise of Lulu Wang’s latest film “The Farewell”. An intimate family drama, it focuses on a Chinese woman that learns her grandmother is dying but is forced to keep it secret. With her latest feature, Wang has crafted a deeply moving portrait of a Chinese family and its cultural traditions. Using a smart screenplay and excellent performances from an Asian cast, she constructs a powerful film that offers great insights into Chinese culture. Although “The Farewell” offers heartwarming entertainment, it is not a film without flaws. It’s a slow-paced movie that occasionally drags and tests the viewer’s patience. That being said, it offers an authentic depiction of a Chinese family that deserves to be seen.

Based on an actual lie, “The Farewell” follows the life of a Chinese woman that returns to her hometown to visit her terminally ill grandmother. Awkwafina stars in the lead role as Billi, an independent woman who cares deeply about her grandmother Nai Nai and is concerned about her illness. After learning that Nai Nai only has a short while left to live, the family decide to keep it a secret from her and schedule a wedding before she dies. Billi is outraged by her family’s deception, but she soon discovers that it is a common tradition in Chinese culture and is forced to follow it.

It’s an Asian-American story about family ties, cultural differences and death that is expertly crafted by writer/director Lulu Wang. With “The Farewell”, Wang draws on her personal experiences as a Chinese woman to create a compelling portrait of a Chinese family. It is not easy to capture the dynamics of a Chinese family in an authentic way, but Wang pulls it off effortlessly. Through haunting cinematography, Wang draws viewers into the world of a Chinese family torn apart by grief. From intimate close-ups to stunning establishing shots, the cinematography captures the state of a Chinese family suffering from grief. Each shot is carefully constructed and showcases the emotions of the characters. Although “The Farewell” is only her second feature, Wang excels at capturing the complicated dynamics of a Chinese family. Her latest film offers an authentic portrayal of Asian-Americans, and it is worth watching on the big-screen for this reason alone.

Another praise-worthy aspect of “The Farewell” is the screenplay. Wang’s screenplay offers the perfect mixture of humor and tragedy, and is one of the film’s main highlights. Filled with empathetic characters, witty dialogue and realistic situations, the script elevates the movie to another level. Wang’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is her ability to blend moments of humor and pathos, and it is clearly evident in this film. At times, the Chinese family has conversations that are comical and hysterically funny. However, there are also moments of sadness and grief as the family fears the death of its matriarch. The two moods blend together perfectly, and it is mainly due to the brilliant script. Moreover, each Asian character is fully realized and larger-than-life. It is easy to resort to stereotypes when creating Asian characters, but Wang avoids these pitfalls. Using an engaging screenplay, Wang keeps viewers engrossed in the lives of the Chinese family throughout the running time.

While the cast isn’t made up of the most well-known stars, Wang still manages to elicit excellent performances out of them. In the year’s most award-worthy Asian ensemble, every actor gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression.

Awkwafina delivers her finest performance to date as Billi. In her first ever leading role, the young actress gets the chance to showcase her dramatic range. It’s a role that marks a huge departure for the actress, who has spent most of her career playing comedic characters. It is not easy to make the transition from comedy to drama, but Awkwafina pulls it off seamlessly. With soulful expressions, she captures the grief of a Chinese woman that learns her grandmother is dying. It’s a powerful performance that showcases the struggles that Chinese immigrants face in returning to their homeland and adjusting to its customs. With “The Farewell”, Awkwafina proves that she is one of the finest Asian actresses working today and deserves recognition come awards season.

The supporting cast is equally excellent and worthy of recognition. Zhao Shuzhen brings the perfect mixture of warmth and humor to the role of the dying grandmother. Tzi Ma is fantastic and steals nearly every scene he is in as Billi’s father. And finally, it is hard to not mention Diana Lin. As Billi’s mother, she is heartbreaking and brings emotion to every scene.

Although “The Farewell” offers an insightful look at Chinese culture, ultimately it is not a film without flaws. If I had a minor issue with the movie, it would be the slow pacing. The film moves at a meandering pace and occasionally drags throughout its running time. With the help of a heartfelt score, Wang keeps the film moving at an engaging pace during the first hour. However, once the film enters its final act it starts to lose momentum and test the viewer’s patience. Wang’s decision to keep the movie slow-paced is somewhat effective and allows viewers to get immersed in the story and characters. However, it detracts from the movie’s entertainment-value and ability to appeal to a wider audience. Due to its slow pacing, “The Farewell” is one of those foreign films that will not appeal to mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of family dramas will definitely enjoy “The Farewell” and so will movie-goers seeking heartwarming entertainment this summer season. At a time when Asian-Americans are rarely represented on the big-screen, Lulu Wang’s film proves that their stories deserve to be told. Stories like this don’t come around often in Hollywood, but on those rare occasions that they do it’s a cause for celebration.

4/5 stars

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