Awkwafina travels far from home to find herself again
Chinese-American writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature is much more of a personal project compared to her 2014 debut, Posthumous. The Farewell is loosely based on a story about her grandmother Nai Nai, who lives in China. Wang’s film opens by telling us it is ‘based on an actual lie’ and while there are quite a few to work our way through, the main one is pretty big: Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with cancer but none of her close family believe she should be told.
Her granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), dotes on her grandmother and is heartbroken to hear the news when her parents, Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (Tzi Ma) tell her they are heading back home. But this sudden family reunion is all being done under the pretence of a fake wedding for one of Nai Nai’s grandchildren in their hometown of Changchun. She is told her recent scan results have given her the all clear, and despite the long faces of some of the family around her, and the emergence of a persistent cough, she is completely unaware that she is bad health.
All of which sounds quite cruel and selfish on the surface, but these key generational and cultural differences remain at the heart of Wang’s film. Out of all of those present, Billi finds it the hardest to sit on this huge secret, before learning it is in fact common practice in China. As we are later told, the belief is it is the family’s duty to carry the emotional burden rather than the one suffering. It’s part of a wider responsibility towards upholding the family unit and society’s communal structure. The Farewell is built upon these ideas of being part of a larger whole and the sacrifices that sometimes have to be made to maintain it.
Awkwafina’s star has been on the rise for some time, both in and out of the film world, and The Farewell places her centre stage for the first time. Given the situation her character finds herself in, the role requires a lot of internalisation, which perhaps doesn’t play to Awkwafina’s strengths. There are times when it’s hard to get a read on what she is trying to convey, although in the more comedic moments she looks more relaxed and in her element. With that said, there is a scene with her mother Jian that asks a lot of her emotionally, and she really sells the moment without edging into melodrama.
There are some pacing issues that slow an already concise runtime of 98 minutes, in particular the second half involving the wedding. Wang’s script also doesn’t have enough meat on the bone to delve into the second generational conflict that weighs heavily on Billi’s mind. As a 20-something born in China, but raised in America from an early age, there are some questions you would expect her to raise, yet they never appear. A little more friction in this department could’ve elevated the dialogue from its mostly placid tone.
On a couple of occasions Billi seems to imagine or dream a single bird has found its way into her bedroom on different occasions. In Chinese culture the bird symbolises freedom and happiness and a touching conclusion adds a nice finish to Wang’s use of the motif. For obvious reasons it’s a film that is close to the director’s heart and while not as funny as it could be, its earnestness just about wins through in the end.
The Farewell is out in cinemas on September 20th
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