Sundance London: The Farewell (2019)

The Farewell is a family comedy drama by Lulu Wang, starring Awkwafina as a young woman caught between the cultures of East and West through her love for her grandmother.

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by Alexa Dalby

The Farewell

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Though it has its moments of quiet comedy, The Farewell is a humane and moving look at the cultural differences between East and West and the difficulty of finding a way of reconciling them when you have grown up as an immigrant in another country.

Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) is Billi, an independent young woman in New York. Her parents moved with her to the US when she was two. She’s still close to her grandmother Nai Nai (wonderful Shuzhen Zhou) in China, speaking on the phone to her regularly although she hasn’t been back to China. Billi is horrified to learn that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, though she’s not aware of this herself – her sister has kept it from her.

As someone who is now more American than Chinese, Billi can’t understand that Chinese tradition means that Nai Nai can’t be told that she’s dying. So as a ruse for to get the whole family together to say goodbye, they plan a family wedding in China. Billi’s father, Nai Nai’s son emigrated to the US with his family. Similarly, his brother emigrated to Japan with his family and it’s his reluctant son Hao Hao (Han Chen) who is the pretext for returning to China so that he can marry his Japanese fiancée Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who doesn’t speak Chinese and is bemused by the situation she finds herself in.

Though she doesn’t agree with what’s happening, Billi is sworn to secrecy. The whole family must put on a brave face so that Nai Nai suspects nothing and sometimes they go to extreme lengths to conceal the truth. But though she appears to go along with the white lies, is she in fact aware all along of the truth? There are hints she does.

It’s an interesting film that highlights the differences between cultures through Billi’s love for her grandmother and her dilemma about whether or not to tell her the truth. Is she even able to hide her feelings from Nai Nai as the rest of her family can or will the expression on her face give the game away? She has to learn that the West prizes the individual, whereas in the East, it’s more important to fit into the family and society. The traditional wedding ceremony is when her decision has to be made. The film is set in the context of China’s great modernisation that is sweeping away old buildings and replacing them with blocks of flats and futuristic road systems, a metaphor for the sweeping changes in society. Should people be looking back and revering a past which has gone forever or should they be looking to the new future? Like Billi, the country at a tipping point.

The Farewell premiered in the UK at Sundance London 2019, where it won the Audience Favourite Award.

Lulu Wang

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