SUNDANCE REVIEW: “A Story Told With Complete Honesty” – ‘The Farewell’ (2019)

Billi (Awkwafina), a young Chinese-American woman living in New York, finds out that her beloved Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of cancer back in China, and that her family has chosen to keep the woman in the dark about her condition. To give the family an excuse to spend time with their grandmother before she passes, a fake wedding is arranged between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend of three months.

Billi is modern and independent yet extremely close with her grandmother, the two sharing a deep connection and love for each other’s company. When Billi learns of her Nai Nai’s condition, her parents advise her not to travel to China, as she wears her heart on her sleeve and couldn’t possibly keep the secret. However, Billi can’t stand being so far away from her grandmother while she is sick, so travels over anyway. As Billi was raised in America she has a differing viewpoint on things, and the internal cross-cultural struggles that she has with her family’s decision opens up thought-provoking questions about love and life.

Nai Nai has complete adoration for her granddaughter, loving and fussing over her in a way that only grandmothers do. Her face is constantly crinkled into a smile, radiating a pure goodness and happiness that establishes her at the gravitational centre of the family. Scenes between Billi and her grandmother are full of joy, the two sharing an endearing chemistry. A particular scene where Billi pokes fun at Nai Nai’s exercises springs to mind.  

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Awkwafina shines with a charismatic performance as Billi, pulling off both comedic and heart wrenching scenes with ease. It would be unfair to say that she carries the film, as each member of the cast brings a piece to complete the whole, but Awkwafina has the story-telling talent to take us on this journey through her character’s perspective, reaping empathy from the viewer. We laugh along as she giggles with her grandmother, share her frustration with her emotionally reserved mother and feel her pain as she waves goodbye to Nai Nai.

The scenery has a muted colour palette and naturalistic lighting that captures life candidly. It is as if the environment surrounding the family is too in mourning. The scenes, however, are anything but bland, instead they are textured with a depth that consumes the viewer. Colour is injected into frame in scenes of familial togetherness. Nai Nai’s front room, the banquet, and the wedding photoshoot are all examples of this; bursts of colour visualising the warmth and vibrancy of Nai Nai that lifts her families’ sombre spirits.

Director Lulu Wang’s personal connection to the story she is telling is clear, as she captures all the nuances of the extended family dynamic sublimely. From the arguments between family members who haven’t seen each other in years to the drunken aunties and uncles at gatherings, all universally relatable situations whatever culture your family comes from. The Farewell may be “based on an actual lie”, but its story is told with complete honesty. Compassionate, moving, and with light moments despite its sadness, you will leave still questioning whether this was the right thing to do. Nai Nai may have been robbed of her chance to say goodbye, but was there really any better send-off than having her whole family home at once for a few of weeks of love and laughter?