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Review: The Farewell

July 24, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

“Chinese people have a saying; when people get cancer, they die.” Several days after seeing director Lulu Wang’s acclaimed new tragicomedy The Farewell, and struggling to nail down the right tone for my review, this is the line that jumped out at me.

It’s what Jian (Diana Lin) tells her daughter Billi (Awkwafina) after informing her that her beloved grandmother back in China, affectionately referred to as Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given mere months to live. It’s not the cancer that necessarily kills you, Jian goes on to explain, but rather the fear.

Like so many things in this film, at first the line makes us laugh with its dark absurdity, but upon further reflection, we start to realize the wisdom behind it. Furthermore, it makes us question if this family is actually doing the right thing by not telling Nai Nai that she is dying. They have instead organized an impromptu wedding for Billi’s only cousin Hao Hao (Chan Hen) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who have only been dating for a few months, so that the entire family has an excuse to visit China and bid their farewells.

This is the fascinating moral question at the centre of the film; should you hide from someone the fact that they are imminently dying, so that they can just live out their final months peacefully and happily without worrying about the end? Or should they know the truth, so they can say their final goodbyes and complete any unfinished business they might have? But what if it’s partially the knowledge of having the diagnosis itself that causes you to psychologically give up and stop fighting?

Billi, who was raised in America and lives in New York, instinctively views not telling her as being morally wrong, but the rest of her family insists that she must not tell Nai Nai the truth. This is tradition, and it’s the way many families in China choose to handle things when faced with the news of a parent or grandparent’s death. Whether this is right or wrong often comes down to a question of Western versus Eastern philosophies, and it’s a complex moral dilemma that Wang handles extremely well.

Awkwafina carries the film with an incredible performance, proving once again that comedic actors often make the most honest and authentic dramatic performers as well. It’s a performance of quiet grace, and her portrayal of a young woman caught between cultures while struggling to hide the truth and say goodbye, is so raw and real that she deserves Oscar consideration. There are moments when she gets to be funny, either with a line delivery or action, but her comic timing is used to ease the tension of uncomfortable dramatic situations. Her humour is presented as a coping strategy in order to navigate awkward family dynamics, and the sense of pathos that she brings to the role is deeply moving.

Zhou, a first time actor, also delivers a very touching performance as the headstrong and fiercely independent grandmother who is delighted to have her entire family together again, but is unaware of the fact that they are all there to say goodbye. The rest of the ensemble cast does an excellent job fleshing out the film with natural and deeply felt performances. Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano offers a series of memorably framed scenes, including leaving extra head room above her subjects in several shots, which allows for some interesting uses of negative space. Composer Alex Weston’s classical score mixes in choral elements to heighten the drama and give the film an almost operatic feel at times.

I’ve always found that the films that feel the most true to life are the ones that blend elements of drama and comedy, and it’s a balance that Wang has pulled off beautifully in The Farewell. There are shades of The Big Sick and Little Miss Sunshine in the film’s handling of tricky subject matter, and it’s just as much of a crowdpleaser as those other two Sundance favourites. Basing the story off of her own life, Wang has a way of staging scenes that both make us laugh as well as move us to tears, often at the exact same moment, and there is a great deal of sensitivity to the film that makes it feel both deeply personal and universally relatable.

The Farewell is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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