Awkwafina (last seen in CRAZY RICH ASIANS) gets a starring role as Billi, a Chinese American who learns that her beloved grandmother aka Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) still living in China has three months to live after being diagnosed with cancer. The family decide not to tell Nai Nai of her illness. Instead the family organize a wedding so that the entire family will travel back to China to spend time with her before she passes away. Hence the film title THE FAREWELL. Billi was not invited to the wedding/farewell as the family fear that she cannot hide her feelings but she shows up in China unannounced from New York City.
The titles cleverly state at the start of the film; “Based on an actual lie.” THE FAREWELL starts off a little humorously as director Wang introduces the somewhat dysfunctional family who aim to do good. The idea is that the family takes on the emotional burden off the grandmother if she does not know. Half way through the movie, it will hit (as it did me) whether what transpires is legal. i.e. will the doctors allow that illness be kept for the patient as requested by the family. The answer is supplied right outwards – a good thing – in the middle of the movie. It is not allowed in America but is allowed in China.
Director Wang is more serious that light in her treatment of the material. Though there are always laughs on the horizon of every scene, the sombre mood is also pressing. Despite the simple story which is suspense less, Wang keeps her film running at a good pace. It is more the family interaction at play than the knowledge of whether Nai Nai will discover the truth at the end. At the end of the matter, whether Nai Nai finds out or who tells her is immaterial to the plot.
Wang captures the behavioural mores typical Chinese family. Important are the big meals, the obsessive ‘fussy’ care over the young and old, the need to keep a stiff upper lip among others. Other issues the are also important include the relationship between mother and daughter-in-law. Billi’s mother complains that Nai Nai was always boss in the home when she married her son, which implies the probable reason they left China for America.
The farewell is not the perfect drama as the film contains many glaring flaws including the tacked on happy ending. Still THE FAREWELL is a sincere drama aided by a solid dramatic performance by Awkwafina who previously only has been seen in comedic roles. The film is entertaining and sheds light on the difference of cultures, in a good way, and also of respect and the difficulty a family to get along. There is nothing forced in the film, and the story unfolds smoothly that should leave the audience not only satisfied but with a warm fuzzy feeling.
Chinese American films have always done well and have been well made like this one (and with a strong feminine protagonist too), the recent Netflix original, ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE and of course, CRAZY RICH ASIANS. There is a large target audience of North American Chinese and hopefully, there will be more films to cater towards this group.