The Farewell (2019)
The Farewell (2019)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: August 9th, 2019 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Lulu Wang Actors: Shuzhen Zhao, Awkwafina, Lu Hong, Lin Hong, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Yang Xuejian, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang

 


 

“B

ased on an actual lie,” states the opening text, generating yet another in a long line of variations on the cinematic gimmick of persuading audiences to believe in a loosely factual basis. As the story begins, elderly grandmother “Nai Nai” Zhao (Shuzhen Zhao) is in a Chinese hospital, talking on the phone with her granddaughter Billi Wang (Awkwafina), living in New York. At the clinic, Nai Nai’s sister insists that the CT scan results were all clear – just “benign shadows.” Nothing to worry about.

In the States, Billi’s father (Tzi Ma) and mother (Diana Lin) gather at dinner, telling stories and jokes. That evening, Billi again speaks with Nai Nai on the phone, the elder complaining about her live-in companion, Mr. Li (Yang Xuejian), while the younger girl hides the grief of her financial troubles (and her lack of a boyfriend). Her problems grow more considerable when she learns that Nai Nai isn’t, in fact, in the clear; she has Stage 4 lung cancer and has three months or less to live. But the family doesn’t want Nai Nai to know, for fear that it’ll cause her to die even sooner – and in misery. Since Billi’s cousin is getting married, the celebration becomes an excuse to travel to China to see Nai Nai one last time, even though they worry about Billi’s ability to effectively conceal the truth.

“Stupid child!” Zhao is immediately exceptional, coming across as genuine and genial, the perpetually cheery and optimistic role (and someone who would surely remain spirited even in the face of the bleak truth), always ready to offer words of wisdom. And the supporting cast is comparably convincing. But Awkwafina isn’t quite right; it’s more apparent that she’s acting, while the others seem thoroughly at home. Nevertheless, it’s her job to be the sullen, depressed one, struggling to come to terms with a looming death in the family – as well as the loss of her identity and unhappy memories of her spontaneous uprooting from China as a child. There’s plenty of light comedic moments, but they’re initially not strong enough to overtake the goodly gloom.

“Isn’t it wrong to lie?” The premise does bring up an interesting concept – that of tough decisions in the face of mortality, and who gets to decide whether or not to withhold vital information. In America, it would be illegal; but in China, most people opt to keep such bad news a secret – it’s their familial duty to bear the great emotional burden (this, of course, brings up the strange notion that Nai Nai is oblivious to her family’s attempts to conceal bad news, despite her having done the exact same thing to her husband). But this potent theme is awfully submerged in mundanity, from trips to the massage parlor and a banquet hall, family gatherings often focused on the pros and cons of China vs. America, and the consuming of so much food. Virtually every other scene is staged around a table and plates piled high. Even during moments not arranged around a meal, eatables manage to find their way into the frame.

Fortunately, pushing through the painfully ordinary activities is rousing, momentous music (alternating at times with melancholy yet powerful choral vocalists), even transitioning at one point to Billi playing the piano (a significant component of her childhood). It aids the poignancy of “The Farewell,” which ultimately serves as an example of how different people (and different cultures) deal with sorrow and bereavement. To some, it’s a time for inconsolable mourning; for others, it’s an opportunity to celebrate and honor the positive impact of the departing loved one. For the most part, a gentle sweetness permeates the film, but it’s also such an average, uneventful, small, intimately-designed, down-to-earth, slice-of-life drama that very little of it is memorable. And the parting shots are a dreadful misstep.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10