Movie #174 2020: The Farewell (2019)

Off the back of her radio story What You Don’t Know, Lulu Wang brings us its film adaptation, titled The Farewell. Semi-autobiographical in nature, The Farewell is a deep insight into Chinese culture, and how they deal with death in the highest populated country in the world.

Awkwafina stars in the main role, playing Chinese-American Billi, who is struggling financially in New York when she receives news that her Grandma over in China has been diagnosed with lung cancer. Unbeknown to her Grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) though, her diagnosis is being kept from her, as Chinese culture dictates that people with cancer should not be made aware of their illness. This idea is perfectly summarised in one line within the movie, which is ”Chinese people have saying, when people get cancer they die. It’s not cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” Thus, the film is based on this belief.

The Farewell taught me that some things transcend cultural and geographical lines. Last year I lost my only remaining grandparent, who also happened to be a grandmother. I’m glad I didn’t watch this before now because I’d have been an emotional wreck if I watched it pre-awards season as I originally intended to. It is filled with joy, and tradition, and heart, but also injects the veil of grief right into your veins. In short, this movie is nothing if not a bundle of emotion.

Speaking of awards season, this was so heavily Oscar-snubbed it makes me angry, especially after having seen it. I’m not only extremely pissed off for Awkwafina, who undoubtedly excels in every genre I’ve seen her in so far, but also for the glowing performance given by Zhao Shuzhen as the Grandmother, who they call ‘Nai Nai’. While Billi is the tour guide, Nai Nai is the heart of this movie, and as a viewer you are mercilessly forced to care about her character to such an extent that the barricade of feelings only hits you harder as a result.

It’s really interesting to see different aspects of Chinese culture and tradition here – it shows us that regardless of our quirks and beliefs, we’re all just human. Using this movie as a platform to teach Western audiences about such things, Lulu Wang masterfully gives us Awkwafina as a way to draw both Americans and the Chinese in; her character is bilingual, but only partially, as her Chinese is not as good as the rest of the family’s. This device enables audiences from both the east and the west the relate to it, and is something I’ve not really seen from a movie before.

Some of the imagery in The Farewell is meticulously crafted and gorgeous to look at, particularly the sequence during the family photo and the shots used at the banquet. There are shots of city life in Changchun, alongside more suburban scenery too, aiding the voyeur’s full immersion into the country itself.

For me, this is an almost perfect film. There are times in which it is not particularly easy to watch – whilst some parts move very slowly, there are also some deeply emotional sequences that will punch you right in the gut. But this movie is so very worth the mild challenge it presents, and I certainly feel more connected to the world as a human being since watching it.

The Farewell is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.

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