REVIEW: The Farewell

★★★★★ | Zach Hester

One of the worst things about living somewhere with very little cultural significance is the fact that our local movie theaters really only show blockbusters. Knowing that, I had to wait over a month to see The Farewell, a phenomenal film that is “based on an actual lie.” 

The Farewell, the second feature film from writer/director Lulu Wang, stars rapper and actress Awkwafina in her first dramatic role as Billi, an aspiring writer who returns to her home country of China to visit her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but not told of her diagnosis. Under the guise of a fake wedding, the family gathers at Nai Nai’s house one last time before she passes away. 

After first reading the film’s description, I had to do quite a bit of research on the “based on an actual lie” concept that states the entire family in the film hides Nai Nai’s (Mandarin for grandma) illness from her. Yes, you read that correctly. The woman in this film who is dying from cancer has her terminal diagnosis hidden from her. In America, such a thing is illegal. That fact is stated as such in the film. 

According to Billi’s uncle in the film, the lie is based on the notion of the entire family carrying the burden of Nai Nai’s diagnosis, instead of her stressing out about it all alone. This points to a cultural divide of collectivism, which finds a lot of stock in Chinese culture, and individualism, which is more common in Western regions like the United States. Collectivism implores that instead of the individual taking on everything, the wants and needs of the group are prioritized over those of the individual. In the case of this film, the wants and needs of the family, i.e. the fact that they don’t want their grandmother to suffer in her final months of life, are placed over the rights of Nai Nai, who remains bright and upbeat throughout the entire movie. 

The Farewell has one of the best portraits of any ordinary family that I’ve seen in a long time onscreen. Each player in the family has their own role within the home and serves a purpose as a cog to keep the lie going. 

Exploring the heart of the film, the family, leads me to discuss this film’s fantastic performances. Awkwafina almost feels like a lock for Lead Actress during the upcoming awards season. This dramatic turn as Billi isn’t just something brand new that we haven’t seen from her on screen, it’s a reserved take without a lot of flashy moments that could see a return to the days of straight-up good acting instead of basing an award-winning performance on a single scene. 

The best part of the film is Nai Nai. Zhao Shuzhen, whom I understand is a FIRST TIME ACTRESS, has to be in the conversation for Best Supporting Actress at next year’s Academy Awards. Every time she’s on screen, she’s either cracking a joke, pulling on your heartstrings or delivering wisdom like none of the other characters are able to do. She steals every single scene she’s in without a doubt.

This is one of those stories that can hit just about anyone on a deep, emotional level. It grabs you by the heart and holds on for its entire runtime. While some scenes could use a little bit of work on the pacing, the film is so close to perfection that I can’t slight it for something so small. The Farewell easily earns my first five star review of the year.