The Farewell stars Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, and Tzi Ma and was directed by Lulu Wang. It tells the story of Billi, played by Awkwafina, who joins her family on a trip to China after her grandma, played by Zhao Shuzhen, is diagnosed with cancer. The family decides not to tell their Nai Nai about her diagnosis and designs an elaborate ruse to explain the family trip. This was such an unexpected movie for me.
I had seen the trailer, so I had an idea of the basic premise, but I did not anticipate a lot of things about this movie. I didn’t expect it to be as funny as it was, I didn’t expect it to be quite as heartfelt as it was, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be as relatable as it was. A24 has a tendency to distribute extremely niche films, but despite its very culture-specific veneer, The Farewell is actually a movie that just about anybody can relate to and connect with.
I’m somebody who has a very very small family, so movies about big families are usually a bit tough for me to feel any connection with. They always seem like something created just for the movies, but the family here actually feels real. A big part of that comes from the fact that this family is based on director Lulu Wang’s real family. And that sense of personal reality shines through in a truly genuine way. The family dynamic here is something unique. They aren’t just a generic super close-knit family or a distant, estranged one. They’re a family who have spread out across the world over the last three decades and although they have differing opinions on a variety of subjects, they still all share in their love for Nai Nai.
Even with such a large cast, we as the audience, feel like we know all of the family members by the end of the movie. We see each of them grieving, laughing, and agonizing over the choices they have to make, but they all do these things in distinctive and unique ways. Oftentimes in movies like this, smaller side characters are reduced to nothing more than one-dimensional caricatures, but even the family members with only a handful of lines were able to convey the depth of their characters.
Awkwafina’s performance was especially moving throughout the film and Zhao Shuzhen was absolutely wonderful as Nai Nai. Their relationship was easily my favorite part of the movie. I mentioned that this was a surprisingly funny movie and a lot of that humor comes from Nai Nai and her interactions with other characters. She has no problem speaking her mind and much of what she said throughout the film was incredibly entertaining.
There’s also a lot of situational humor and cross-cultural fish-out-of-water comedy, like when the family visits the grave of Billi’s grandfather. And while Awkwafina’s character has plenty of funny moments, they’re much more subdued and nuanced than her typical comedy fare. But, despite the humor, this film is definitely still a poignant family drama and its heartfelt moments are certainly impactful.
There were plenty of people sniffling in the theater at my showing, but the movie isn’t designed as a tear-jerker. It’s just a movie about realistic characters dealing with a difficult situation and explores the struggle surrounding an illness in the family. It should come as no surprise for an A24 film, but this movie looks and sounds wonderful. There are a lot of moments with excellent cinematography, ranging from the symmetry of buildings to the spatial balance of characters in the fore, mid, and background of shots. The story itself is compelling, but there’s more to this movie than just what we see at the surface level. Sometimes you’ve got to look branch level too.
The Farewell is a movie that is very steeped in Chinese culture, yet it still remains an incredibly universal and relatable movie. It’s about grief, it’s about family, it’s about immigrant life, it’s about heritage, and it’s about figuring out who you are by looking at where (and who) you’re from. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons. Pro number one has gotta be the family moments. Every time Nai Nai was on screen, the movie was just elevated. Her interactions with the rest of the family (and especially with Billi) were fantastic. Her presence brought comedy, sweetness, and poignancy to an already large and interesting family. If she wasn’t on screen, the film still centered around her with the family debating, grieving, or simply reconnecting during their time together. Pro number two is the relatability.
Even as somebody who isn’t really all that familiar with Chinese culture and isn’t a first-generation immigrant, I found myself connecting with and relating to this family and the movie as a whole. I imagine people in a more culturally-similar situation will be able to relate even more than I ever could, but the family in this film seems so genuine that it felt like I was watching a documentary rather than a movie at points. Even if you’re not Chinese or from a big family, the themes of grief and togetherness still resonate. As far as cons go, this movie had a few issues related to the pacing. There were a couple moments and side tangents that made the film a bit slow at points, but even that was pretty minor.
These moments most frequently occurred during the scenes without Nai Nai, but even though they slowed things down some, those scenes were still integral to the story and character development. I’m gonna give The Farewell 3.5 out of 5 paws. It’s a very funny and heartfelt story with some great performances. But, despite the fact that I did feel a true connection with this movie, for some reason that I can’t quite explain, I didn’t absolutely love the movie. I would recommend The Farewell to almost anybody. If you’re familiar with Chinese culture, you might get a little bit more out of this movie, but it’s definitely not a requirement. Really, just about anybody will find something to connect with here.
Whether that be an illness in the family, the struggle to balance cultural traditions with life in a new country, or even just not really knowing what you’re gonna do with your life. The movie is on the slower drama side of things at points and has a lot of subtitles, so if you scoff at those things, you may want to either prepare yourself for them or skip out on this one. If you liked The Farewell, I would recommend Shoplifters for another Asian culture-steeped drama with strong family themes. This one’s set in Japan and features another integral grandma role. If you want another film that touches heavily on dealing with grief and how family can help (or hinder) that, you should check out Manchester By the Sea.
It’s another poignant and relatable drama. And if you want a slightly more adventurous grandparent movie, be sure to check out Harry and Tonto to see a grandfather travel cross-country with his pet cat to visit his grandchildren. Alright, a couple questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen The Farewell? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What movie features your favorite grandparent-grandchild relationship? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.