The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s true-to-life story, is as comedic as it is dramatic. Awkwafina’s performance is the strongest aspect of the film, but the sentimentalism behind the story is equally as strong. Perhaps it is the way our memories work, but I have a tendency to block out painful emotional moments in my history. I do acknowledge those moments, but I don’t dwell on them.
Films like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell don’t necessarily change my perception of those painful moments. They’re not designed to.
If anything, these stories remind me to celebrate, to cherish the time I’ve had with family, with friends.
This isn’t the sole purpose of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which expands to theaters across the country this weekend after taking Sundance by storm earlier this year as well as closing the Phoenix Film Festival.
The uniqueness inherent in Lulu Wang’s story of The Farewell is in the bridge it builds between two completely different worlds: that of China, its customs and heritage and the Chinese-American immigrant story. Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) plays Billi. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was a baby and she has grown up amongst American influences, while her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma, Chain Reaction) and Jian (Diana Lin) know of the old country, but have chosen to shield Billi from those customs.
Awkwafina plays Billi as a fashionable millennial, living in a posh loft with no job, but plenty of ambition and fire. She comes across in the first act as being very fiercely independent, bordering on a slight disrespect for her parents.
When her Nai Nai, which is Chinese for Grandma, (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with cancer, Billi’s parents return to China, but object to Billi’s joining them. The objection is identified as a cultural difference – they keep the diagnosis as a secret from her – that Billi won’t, or can’t understand and they fear that Billi won’t be able to keep the secret.
Being the firecracker that she is Billi makes her way to China, much to the surprise of everyone including her Nai Nai.
Wang paints Billi’s time in China as a “fish-out-of-water” story in that she really is a stranger in her own home country. And that’s a perfect time for a family reunion. Wang uses these story devices to celebrate life, not to mourn the impending passing of a relative.
Throughout the ongoing celebration of life, is a wedding, a very tepid relationship between a cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), and an ongoing feud between the brothers, Haiyan and Haibin (Jiang Yongbo).
Wang’s treatment and integration of all these mini celebrations adds flavor to an already flavorful story. The contrast between being an immigrant and a “stranger in a stranger place” is that Billi gets to experience the best, and perhaps the worst, of both worlds. The immersion humbles her life experiences, and that’s really at the heart of the true story.
As I’m writing this review, I’m reminded of the chance I had to accompany my own grandmother back up to Wisconsin for what was a final trip. She was at the age where she couldn’t physically travel. They retired out to Arizona after raising three kids, my dad the oldest of the three, in Wisconsin. At that time, I hadn’t been back for six years, so for me, it was also like being a “fish out of water.” But our own family reunion was what made the trip very special. It brings back a lot of fond memories.
Just like Billi’s experience in The Farewell, I became a much more humbled individual for the experience.
The Farewell expands to theaters nationwide and is rated PG-13. All photos courtesy of A24.