‘The Farewell’: A Hello to Life

by Christian Ramos on August 1, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Rock Fist Way Up]

I’ll get straight to the point, I loved The Farewell.

It’s about once a year a film comes along and makes me audibly cry in theaters, impacting me somehow in a personal nature, and this seems to be this year’s winner. Directed by Lulu Wang, the story is inspired by “a true lie” (signaled by  the first words appear on screen) from Wang’s own family life. In this film, she examines the subject of life and death, and how different cultural beliefs dictate the fate of others. It’s a simple, yet profound examination and contains two of the best performances of the year, in my own opinion. 

Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York as a struggling writer. We’re introduced to her talking to her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) in China. Though separated by thousands of miles, both show each other the long distance love that only a grandmother and grandchild could share. Billi discovers from her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The family has decided not to tell Nai Nai this news, because as a custom in Chinese culture telling a person they have cancer will only speed up the illness. As a cover up, the family pushes up a wedding of Nai Nai’s grandson as a decoy to get the family together one last time. Billi, against her parents wishes, decides to fly to China, put on a happy face, and spend whatever time she has left with Nai Nai. What follows is really the story of Billi learning more about life and happiness from being with Nai Nai than she could have ever imagined.

Cue the waterworks. 

Both my grandmothers passed in the last five years so I took this film to heart deeply. Neither had cancer like Nai Nai, but both were sick with Alzheimer’s, which of course stripped away precious memories they had. There’s a scene in this film where Billi and her mother talk about not telling Nai Nai she’s dying and that got to me. In this scene, Billi talks about how she didn’t even get to spend time with her grandfather before he passed away. She resents the family for lying to him about being sick, until he was near-death. It’s this one scene that has stuck with me a day later. I didn’t get to see my father’s mother pass away, or even get to see her for a decade because of stupid family issues that didn’t affect me at all. I understand the pain Billi feels in this scene and every scene after, putting on a brave face, yet being miserable at knowing the truth. Billi has been in the United States most of her life, and the customs of China vs. the States is completely different in terms of death. It’s hard to lose somebody, but it’s harder to see them live in such a peaceful existence when inside of them, something is wrong. 

If I could give out awards for some of the best performances of the year, one would go directly to Awkwafina for giving something I haven’t seen from her before. It’s a pretty dramatic and somber role that made me love her even more. Another would go to Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai. Shuzhen gives such vibrance and life to Nai Nai, and her moment teaching Billi to scream out to the world and breathe in the fresh air was the peak moment for her performance.

Wang’s script gives each character something to work with, something to laugh and cry at, and something to understand in this personal story. I love a good script that’s personal, and Wang even includes a brief follow-up to the story that won’t be spoiled here. The Farewell is not about saying goodbye because of death, it’s about saying hello and learning about life. How beautiful is that? Wang’s film is so uplifting despite making me both tear up and cry throughout because of how well she frames her story to be about a girl and her grandmother. It’s a grandparent’s love of their grandchildren that is probably one of the most special things in the world, and this elevates that to new heights.

Bravo to this film.

Christian Ramos is a classic film fan, having had the dream to host Turner Classic Movies for years now. He also has a large amount of Oscar trivia in his head, remembers dressing as Groucho Marx one Halloween, and cherishes the moment Julianne Moore liked his tweet.


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