The Farewell is the first PG-rated film by A24, which is known more for distributing more mature and provocative arthouse-type films like Midsommar, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Moonlight. Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, is incidentally also the boyfriend of Lulu Wang, the director of The Farewell. Which brings us to Wang herself—this is only her second feature film, after Posthumous (2014), and what a breakthrough it is in so many ways. Here are four reasons you shouldn’t miss it:
Reason #1: Another Successful All-Asian Cast for a ‘Hollywood’ Film
If the unexpected success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) swung opened the door for Asian representation in mainstream American cinema, then it would be reasonable to think that The Farewell has been one of its grateful beneficiaries. Granted, Wang’s film is a much more modest one, but as a piece of indie American cinema, it remains a triumph for all-Asian casting with every role, leading or supporting, cast to a tee with effective performances.
Reason #2: Awkwafina’s Extraordinary Performance
Speaking of Crazy Rich Asians and performances, Awkwafina who had an attention-grabbing supporting role as Peik Lin in the movie, shows us a wholly different side of her in The Farewell. For one, she speaks a sizable amount of Mandarin here (or at least tries to, and if I may add, with a strange if alluring accent). But her dramatic work is most impressive as she surprises with her acting chops despite being cast against type. Hers is one of the most emotionally affecting performances of the year, and I hope she lands at least a Golden Globe nomination for acting.
Reason #3: Culturally-Specific but Universal Story
Although it is a US production with some scenes shot in New York, The Farewell was majorly filmed in Changchun, China. It centers on Billi (Awkwafina) who lives in the States with her Americanised Chinese parents. One day, they make the decision to fly back to China to visit the ailing Nai Nai, Billi’s doting grandmother who has terminal cancer. This could be the last chance for all her loved ones to see her. The extended family gathering is, however, unusual—they are all there on the pretext of gathering for a wedding so as to keep Nai Nai in the dark of her condition.
It is a culturally-specific story that may bemuse the Chinese community in Asia, but whether the movie will be a hit in places like Mainland China or Taiwan remains to be seen. For Singaporeans who have assimilated both Western thought and Eastern values, Wang’s film is likely to resonate more. However, its universal theme of family is not really tied to any one culture, for as long as you love your family, you will find The Farewell a life-affirming work with plenty of pathos.
Reason #4: Brilliant Balance of Tone
You wouldn’t believe that Wang’s film is a comedy despite its subject matter. And it all works out so well because the film is able to capture a very specific tone, and does so consistently throughout the runtime. Because it is a story about a family who can’t reveal their true feelings to their Nai Nai, it is hilarious to see how the ensemble cast have to ‘fake their performances’. It is this balance between carefully-calibrated comedy and poker-face seriousness, of needing to let loose and be happy yet feeling utterly sad and wistful inside that gives The Farewell its brilliant and precise tone.