The Farewell (2019)
Lulu Wang’s debut is an extraordinary balancing act. Comedy and tragedy permeate the screen—taking turns in the spotlight—in one impeccably staged scene after another. A fake wedding shoot fails to slapstick effect while a grandmother and her granddaughter share a poignant moment in the foreground. A riotous drinking game thinly conceals the overwhelming grief of its participants. A wide shot of a man slumped over on stage (pictured above) holds within it all the pain and absurdity of human existence. More than once, I cried through laughter and laughed through tears.
Billi (Awkwafina) has returned to her hometown of Changchun, developed beyond recognition, for the first time since childhood. Lulu Wang paints the country with an affectionate eye. The locals are detached witnesses to the unfolding chaos; Changchun’s grey skies and stark architecture enclose the family and their pain. There are moments that do feel culturally reductive but we’re viewing a very specific China from Billi’s Asian-American perspective. Awkwafina, fumbling with Mandarin and a thousand emotions, balances goofiness and melancholy. The rest of the cast, a staggering ensemble, play their roles to perfection.
“Based on an actual lie”, The Farewell treads difficult ethical ground: is it ok not to tell someone they’re dying? Surprisingly, it isn’t preachy. The characters each have their fixed views—an uncle explains that Chinese people see themselves as “part of a whole”, more willing to sacrifice, while Billi bluntly points out that what they’re doing is “probably illegal”. But these conflicts melt in the face of raw emotion. At the centre of it all is Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), the object of their love and deceit. She is as charming as the film needs her to be, radiating in my heart even as I write this. Her force of life brings much needed colour to Wang’s sombre palette.
I can still recall every scene and relive every emotion. To leave such an imprint is indication enough of greatness. The Farewell is an instant favourite.