Lulu Wang’s second feature is a brilliant insight into a millennial experience on being an immigrant in America and the struggle for identity. Following Chinese-American millennial Billi (Awkwafina), The Farewell travels from America to China as Billi’s Grandma, Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen), falls ill with terminal cancer. What throws an even heavier spanner in the works is Billie’s family’s decision to not disclose the full extent of the cancer to Nai Nai leaving Billi torn between what she believes to be right and the traditions of her Chinese family. The family organises a quick wedding for one of Billi’s cousins so everyone can see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. A semi-autobiographical film based on Wang’s own experiences, it is a deeply personal film that flits flawlessly between drama and comedy in a way that feels authentic. The majority of the film is in Chinese with the American family integrating English into conversations, particularly if it involves Nai Nai. A critical and commercial success on release, it was a familiar face at awards season but controversy turned its nasty head when it was wrongly snubbed at the Oscars in all categories.
Awkwafina has slowly become one of my favourite rising stars after her great supporting turn in Ocean’s 8. Tuning into what is clearly her signature dry humour, Awkwafina’s Billi is a young woman dealing with an internal identity crisis as her American state of mind cannot comprehend the Chinese tradition of not telling a sick person about their condition. Billi’s sensitive and outspoken traits are deemed “American” and she is both mocked and chastised for it. The performance garnered Awkwafina her first Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical and I am sure it won’t be her last. She was sadly omitted from the Academy Award nomination in a snub that was swirling in controversy but her time will come. It’s insane to think that this was her first leading performance in a feature film because it’s a turn that most people can only dream of achieving. Billi’s story arc is one of emotional growth. She doesn’t have all the answers but she doesn’t need to have them at the moment.
In support we have Zhao Shu-zhen turning in a fantastic performance as the resilient Nai Nai. Always putting Billi in check and making sure everyone is well fed, Nai Nai is a character of strength and Shu-zhen plays her perfectly. The dynamic Shu-zhen and Awkwafina have onscreen is brilliant and their relationship seems real to the point where it sometimes feels like you are watching a documentary. There is no reason whatsoever as to why Shu-zhen was not nominated for her Supporting role at the major award shows. Even when she is not onscreen, the audience is constantly thinking about Nai Nai and waiting for her next scene. Nai Nai has to reintroduce Billi to her Chinese heritage and does it in a way where she too becomes accustomed to Billi’s sensitivity.
There are so many scenes that can be discussed but in particular, the scene when Nai Nai is in hospital and Billi asks the doctor in English for the truth because she knows only her and her parents will understand. Not only is it a punch in the gut on the delivery of the doctor’s news but is also balanced out by Nai Nai’s attempt to set up Billi and the doctor. Despite the scene mixing Chinese and English, it never feels as though the flow and pacing is stilted. This scene is just one of many examples of Wang’s brilliant writing. In terms of her direction, the scene in which Billi runs from the wedding to collect Nai Nai’s test results from the hospital is one of huge significance. Storywise, this is the scene in which we see Billi accepting the traditions and actively following the plan to hide the condition from Nai Nai. As Billi runs a long stretch from the wedding to the hospital, the camera simply follows her in minimal takes. It is a brilliant sequence as we begin to see the desperation that Billi is feeling. These two scenes are so significant as one shows Billi’s reluctance to conform to the traditions to her embracing them and understanding.
Lulu Wang has established herself as a brilliant filmmaker with a strong vision and sharp writing. It is hard to believe that this is only her second feature film after 2014’s Posthumous. After the enormous success of Jon M. Chu’s 2018’s blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians (which also featured Awkwafina), there is clear proof that people want to see films starring and created by people of colour and minorities in an industry dominated and ran by white people. This is also what makes The Farewell so important as it is a deeply personal story but one that resonates with the audience. It would be great to see Wang collaborate with Awkwafina again as she managed to draw that dramatic side out in a way that is so rare and brilliant for comedic actresses. It’s only a matter of time before we see Wang’s name among the nominees on the major awards circuit.
What did you think of The Farewell? Let me know in the comments