The Farewell review – beautifully bittersweet Chinese-American family drama

Awkwafina impresses in Lulu Wang’s moving and witty culture clash tale

The push and pull between the bonds of blood and the ties of culture are explored with a light touch and a perceptive eye for detail in this delightful, semi-autobiographical family drama from writer and director Lulu Wang. Chinese American Billi (Awkwafina, building on her zesty comic turn in Crazy Rich Asians) has a foot in each of the two countries. Wang introduces the idea with the same deft writing and wry insight that characterise the film in its entirety. Billi walks through the streets of New York talking on the phone in the respectful Chinese of a dutiful granddaughter to her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). “Yes, I’m wearing a hat,” she reassures Nai Nai (she isn’t). Then she effortlessly switches personas and languages to banter in American-accented English with a canvasser on the street.

The American tendency to freely share thoughts and feelings collides with the Chinese way of parcelling up emotions. The two identities co-exist in Billi, until the moment that she learns that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and that her family have decided to keep the information from the elderly lady. “Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die,” says Billi’s mother (Diana Lin). “But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” Billi disagrees, arguing that Nai Nai should have the chance to confront her fate.

A hastily convened wedding provides the cover story to bring the extended family back to China to bid farewell to their unwitting matriarch. Cut-away shots of the shellshocked happy couple, Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend, steamrollered into marriage after three months of diffident dating, are among the many sly comic asides that punctuate this poignant story.

As gifted a writer as she is at creating playful, visually layered frames, Wang is constantly juggling clashes – of cultures, of tragedy and joy. I particularly loved a heart-to-heart conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, which plays out against the backdrop of the soon-to-be married couple posing for wedding pictures wearing panicked, firing-squad grimaces. Ultimately, it’s all about balance, a yin and yang of roots and identities, humour and pathos that comes together into a satisfying, bittersweet wedding banquet of a movie.

Watch a trailer for The Farewell.

Contributor

Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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