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Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Farewell, Film USA 2019, written and directed by Lulu Wang, 8.5* out of 10

Writer-director Lulu Wang succeeds with a touching and intelligent family comedy-drama dealing with universal themes in a world where strong family ties are tested by a difficult situation, geographic distance, and new cultural influences.  

When Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) beloved grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given about 6 months to live, the family decides to hide the diagnosis from her. Grandma Nai Nai lives in China and Billi emigrated to the USA with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin). Her uncle (Jiang Yongbo) and his family live in Japan. In order to have a pretext for the whole family to say farewell to grandma Nai-Nai, without arousing her suspicions, the family quickly decide to move forward the date of the wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Ahoi Mizuhara) and let grandma Nai Nai organize it in China.

The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical family comedy-drama that touches on the topics of maintaining a strong national/local family-culture finding expression in a globalized world characterized by families being spread geographically across very different cultures with different values prevailing in each of these locations. Is it right to hide the diagnosis from a patient even with the best of intent? This was a practice widespread in the Western world in the 1950s and 1960s but would now not be accommodated by the medical doctors treating a patient. In today’s China it is still possible. And then there is the simple technical difficulty of keeping something secret from a member of a family that all other members of the family know and must do their best not to divulge. That situation provides significant potential for comedy, tragedy and drama of all sorts.

The story is based on what director Lulu Wang calls “a true lie” that continued to play out in her own family during the making and showing of her film. Grandma Nai Nai’s sister “Little Nai Nai” is actually played by Lulu Wang’s great aunt Hung Lo, the actual sister of Wang’s grandmother. Lulu Wang’s screenplay and the strong acting performances by the ensemble make The Farewell a pleasure to watch, the loving relationship between Billi and the practical matriarch that is her grandmother is beautifully developed. There is some outstanding acting by Awkwafina as Billi struggling in her career ambitions and private life straddling the US and China, Shuzhen Zhao as grandma Nai Nai and particularly by Diana Lin as Billi’s mother.

This is a beautifully written, developed and acted this family story is gentle, nuanced, intelligent touching on universal themes. At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, the film was nominated for two awards including Best Foreign Language Film, with Awkwafina winning for Best Actress - Musical or Comedy.



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