Grief and glee go hand in hand in the name of a good lie for the loveable family in Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature The Farewell. Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American woman living in New York, an aspiring artist still finding her feet.
Her priorities drastically change when her beloved grandma, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, and her family decides not to tell her. Instead, they stage a wedding (for Billi’s cousin and the woman he’s been dating for a grand total of three months) as a celebratory cover to let everyone say their goodbyes without letting fear or sadness ruin final moments of togetherness.
Wang brings her own family memories to life in this charming and tender film, itself based on the story she told on ‘In Defence of Ignorance’ show from the This American Life podcast. The Farewell chronicles a close-knit family distanced by two cultures, two countries, two ways of dealing with bad news: dwell on a sad truth, or hide it – making every last memory a good one.
Performance is everything, and the filmmaker successfully marries comedic talent with sensitive writing to universalise her experience. Awkwafina’s comic timing brings charm to secret moments of sadness, and the ensemble cast by her sides offers pantomimic commitment to the act of keeping secrets. These layers of lies and protection bring wisdom to an implausible premise, and the always-present love of every family member anchors the humour beautifully.
The Farewell tastefully captures the conflicted identity of first-generation immigrants, as much within their own family as when facing the rest of the world too. As much at the dinner table as in morsels of lost conversation (most of the film is spoken in Mandarin), Billi’s experience is very specifically Chinese, but the delicate framing of memories recreated like polaroid photographs feels accessible to a wide audience.
The emotion is designed and performed so vividly that the film occasionally loses intimacy, but the family’s chemistry grounds the drama with believable, and such loveable, warmth. Awkwafina stakes her claim as a serious dramatic talent, treading the line between bereavement and entertainment with precise skill. But Nai Nai is the real showstopper – Zhao plays the family’s lynchpin with outstanding verve, at once tough, judgemental, and endlessly devoted to her family.
No one wants to die alone – and a life lived in love, surrounded by those who deserve it the most, gives The Farewell a deeply empathetic appeal. The five stages of grief are softened, replaced with every exciting moment of planning a celebration. Sometimes, all it takes is a little white lie to save a life.
|What||The Farewell review|
20 Sep 19 – 20 Sep 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|