Not all lies are bad. Some are for the greater good…right? Can a lie really be for anything good though? Well, that’s the powerful and rather deep concept that is tackled in Chinese director Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature film “The Farewell”. Based on Lulu Wang’s own autobiographical story from This American Life “The Farewell” has been regarded as one of 2019’s best films to date, a status I will put to the test in my review here today. But it’s not the compliments of other critics that had me rushing to the theater to see this flick, it’s what it has to say that had me the most intrigued. The story revolves around the idea that lying to prevent someone the pain of reality can, at times, be justified while also addressing the cultural divide between the East and the West and how we perceive the value of life and family. With such strong themes and real-life inspiration behind it, there’s always the risk that a film like this can go a little too far off the deep end. Let’s see if this film finds the right balance. This is my review of “The Farewell”.
“The Farewell” serves as a fictionalized version of director and writer Lulu Wang’s own real-life experiences involving her grandmother, a.k.a Nai Nai. Utilizing both American English and Mandarin Chinese dialect with subtitles, the film focuses on Chinese American writer Billi (Awkwafina) who takes Lulu’s place in the story. Billi and her parents moved to America when she was young and, as a result, her biological family has not all been in the same place together for many years and she has lost touch with Chinese tradition in favor of American ones. When Billi’s Nai Nai (Chinese for grandmother, played by Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with cancer Billi’s parents inform her that the family is getting together for a wedding in an attempt to celebrate Nai Nai’s life while keeping her diagnosis a secret from her. After arriving in China, Billi finds it difficult to understand the ethics of keeping the secret believing her grandmother deserves the know the truth. However, upon talking to other family members she comes to understand the difference between two culture and the dueling concepts of individualism and collectivism forcing Billi to struggle with her own morals and whether or not ignorance can ever be better than the truth.
“The Farewell” is a fascinating and powerfully moving cinema experience. There’s been nothing quite like it released in 2019 to date as it’s probably the most real, sincere, and tragically honest film I’ve seen these last seven months. Lulu Wang takes a real-life experience of lying to her own Nai Nai and presents us with a raw interpretation of a harsh reality like few filmmakers are able to accomplish so clearly and effectively. While it’s not the most exciting narrative, it’s not meant to be. There no added drama, no over-the-top conflict, no dramatization that’s obviously built for cinematic purposes. It’s just pure, grade-A interpretative art focusing on the very human subjects of grief, fear, and cultural duality. Every character and performer in this film feels like a real person with star Awkwafina at the center showing off a range like we’ve never seen before. She drops her normal comedic persona for one humbler and more grounded as a Chinese-born American torn between two cultural differences that challenge her way of looking at the world and how families value each other in the grand scheme of things. The chemistry she has with Zhao Shuzhen is also incredibly believable and adorable making it even easier to relate to her struggle with the truth.
“The Farewell” makes fantastic use of minimalist filmmaking with simple visuals, a stylistic but still peaceful soundtrack, and spot-on cinematography and shooting to present us with a world and story that feels very natural and very lifelike. But it’s the story itself and how it’s presented that rocked me to my core. As I said this is a brutally honest film and one that manages to tackle differences in perspective and cultures without feeling like a pandering mess as many modern cultural flicks tend to do. I found myself personally challenged by the ideas the film portrays. Awkwafina’s Billi finds it difficult to keep a harsh secret like a cancer diagnosis from her grandmother and in America such an act would be illegal and immoral. But in China, at least in the movie I’m not sure about real life, it’s practiced as a tradition of sorts. The family holds the burden of the knowledge and the pain of the impending death, not the victim. This moral conundrum creates the basis of the entire film as Billi, and we the audience, are made to question if it’s ethical to enforce a lie for a good reason or if the pain of the truth is more respectable.
At one point in the movie we’re directly presented with the duality of this debate in probably the film’s more direct reference to its cultural message. Billi’s uncle presents the two ideas: On one hand, Western culture says the diagnosis belongs to the victim, presenting honesty and respecting their right to know but forcing the pain on the victim so that we, the family and friends, don’t have that burden. On the other hand, Eastern culture keeps it a secret and the family and friends bare the burden, but in exchange it effects how they relate to the person suffering from the illness because they try so hard to preserve that ignorance. Both can be considered selfish and selfless depending on the perspective but never both. Which path is proper? Which one is more or less painful? Which one is fairer to the person dying? We don’t know, Billi doesn’t know and the movie doesn’t tell us. We’re not supposed to know for sure. We’re supposed to understand that this decision isn’t easy and that pain, emotional or physical and suffered by anyone, is complicated. It’s such a complex issue and one with no easy answer. While it does ask questions about what approach is truly the moralistic one it also subtly touches on the differences in cultures and how complicated someone like Billi’s life, which incorporates multiple cultural values, can be. All of this makes “The Farewell” one of 2019’s most compelling and thought-provoking movies so far.
Honestly, I had a hard time finding anything to complain about with “The Farewell”. It’s just such a great story with difficult themes and characters who feel more human than almost any others presented to date this year. Maybe its biggest flaw is not a flaw at all. “The Farewell” is sure to be underappreciated by those who can’t respect what it’s trying to say and the slow, natural pace in which it chooses to say it. Some will call this film a slog, and quite honestly, its hour-and-a-half run time does feel more like two hours by the end of it, but I think that’s the point. We’re given so much time to embrace the story and the characters and the raw emotion being projected on-screen that maybe it was meant to feel like forever. Maybe we’re meant to have that time for everything to sink in. After all, what’s the point in packing so much emotion, subtext, and complex themes into a narrative if you’re not going to take the time to develop them and allow them to take hold? This film’s greatest weakness is its greatest strength and that’s that it respects what it has to say and its story so much that it may be hard for it to earn the respect it so rightly deserves itself from those too impatient to lose themselves in the experience.
“The Farewell” really is one of the best movies of 2019. That’s no exaggeration, it’s a masterpiece in its own right. Few films can manage to capture such humanity and complexity with such a simple story and the cast of all-Asian actors and actresses including Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen and others all brilliantly and fully embrace a great opportunity to tell an important and thought-provoking real-life story. With impeccable writing, great camerawork and careful craftsmanship, and a few thematic messages that the story drives home with the perfect balance of tact and harsh sincerity “The Farewell” does what most great films of bygone eras managed to do. It leaves you pondering and questioning what would you do? How would you react? What is proper and what is not? Is there even a bad guy or a wrong decision in this situation? It asks questions that challenge you and not just for the sake of asking them, but because they’re questions worth asking. It’s elements like that that are destined to make “The Farewell” possibly one of the decades very best dramas.