Based on the story What You Don’t Know, by director and screenwriter Lulu Wang, The Farewell isn’t your usual dysfunctional-family film – like the ones that Hollywood regularly through out there aplomb – in the independent film circuit and this due to the source material. Wang’s film gets inside the real emotion of ‘family’ with a learning curve for its audience, not only showing us how different cultures deal with death/life but also how genuinely heartfelt and human it can be portrayed.
The Farewell starts with the tag ‘Based On An Actual Lie’, which is a welcome twist of the now common-place ‘true story’, and tells the tale of Billi (played exquisitely by Awkwafina), Chinese born but U.S. Raised, who returns to Changchun in China after her Grandmother, known to everyone as Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), is given weeks to live after being diagnosed with terminal cancer but – here’s the twist – the entire family know of her illness but Nai Nai doesn’t, because they’ve kept it a secret from her.
We learn quickly that this isn’t intended to be anything unfair or unreasonable but the family, as a whole, want Nai Nai to keep living her life in a positive, uplifting manner and you can see why, because she’s quite the wonderful character. Played with natural warmth by Zhao, she’s every ounce the loving, giving grandparent, caring with all of her being about her grand-kids and her family, doing anything to make sure they’re happy and looking after themselves.
In order to fuel the falsehood, the family also force-through an early wedding between two of their young relatives, who are also in on the lie, and thus setting up a situation that’s both slightly crazy, unusually inventive but, of course, quite entertaining. As members of the extended family return from various places across the world, Billi’s desire to tell Nai Nai about the reality of the moment grows within her. You can see the internal struggle but despite Billi’s sadness for the slow demise of her grandmother, as time goes on, she’ll have to learn that sometimes the bigger picture is just as important as her own beliefs in what’s happening.
The Farewell clearly (and fairly) also raises the point of the differences between the East and West, the variations cultures and the way we all treat one another. I was won over by the film from the early stages, as we’re witness to Billi’s learning curve in both herself and the greater good she’ll help mould. Awkwafina gives a wonderful performance, offering up both an insight into the frustration and sadness she feels for not being able to tell her Grandmother why they’re all there, other than for a basically-fake wedding.
The other stand-out performance is from Zhao’s Nai Nai herself, both full of spirit and natural, wonderful hopefulness. Whilst she obviously doesn’t know of her known (possible) incoming demise, we all get to realise that sometimes you need to look beyond the bubble you build for yourself. So, as Billi’s understand grows, so does she as a person, rediscovering memories from her childhood in China and those deep, true connections you make with people who you care for deeply.
There’s a scene late on where Nai Nai gives Billi an envelope of money, like any Grandparent would do, and from this moment, I found myself in reflective tears, remembering my relatives, those who’ve left this world and their unfaltering selflessness in certain memories. The Farewell is one of the finest stories I’ve seen about family in a long while. When you add in some intelligent cinematography from Anna Franquesa Solano, which makes the whole package feel elegant, homely and equally expansive, you also get to enjoy terrific performances of the ensemble cast as well as their own individual insight along the way. A true weaving story of rich kindness, love and – mostly importantly – hope.
This is a real mini-marvel, bittersweet and beautiful.