VOD film review: The Farewell
Ivan Radford | On 10, Feb 2020
Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma
Watch The Farewell online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“Based on an actual lie” is how The Farewell announces itself, but that mischievous declaration gets to the heart of just how honest a tale it is, one that’s shot through with a rich, rewarding sincerity.
The lie in question is a tiny white lie of the biggest variety: Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in America, discovers that her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, prompting her to want to go and visit. The rest of the family, though, haven’t told her and decided that Nai Nai should be able to avoid the fear and upset the diagnosis would cause her. Instead, they devise a fake wedding to hold as a covert way to bid farewell. Billi isn’t allowed, because she’ll give the game away, but she flies back home to China anyway, and finds herself navigating the world’s most awkward family gathering.
What ensues is at once hysterical and heart-wrenching, as we see generations of the family clash constantly over everything, from preparations for the fake marriage of Billi’s cousin and seemingly unfazed girlfriend to taking Nai Nai to the doctor’s for a check-up. The ensemble cast are pin-point perfect, with Diana Lin as Billi’s mother proving particularly funny, a stern counterpart to our young protagonist. Awkwafina, meanwhile, delivers a star-making performance, building on her charismatic turn in Ocean’s Eight with one that’s layered with pathos and humour – even the way she walks between rooms, slouched and despondent, is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and rooted in her idealistic, yet wearily cynical character.
Lulu Wang crafts the whole affair with endless wit, from visual jokes in the background of every gathering to the quick-fire script that lets every eccentric family member shine. At its heart are the gorgeously intimate exchanges between Billi and Zhao Shuzhen’s vibrantly adorable Nai Nai, as the front drops just long enough for a sincere swap of wisdom and hopes. Their wonderful chemistry bursts with genuine affection, the poignant script bringing a documentary-like realism to the understated family portrait.
Underlying that layered drama is a thoughtful observation of divisions that are more than just personal. Billi, who flew the nest for life in the States, is at odds with the Chinese approach to terminal illness, her frank tell-all outlook the opposite of the tight-lipped, unspoken tradition that governs her elders. The lie we’re warned about at the start is rooted in that cultural difference, and there’s an understanding from Wang of the love that drives it – a determination on the part of the family to bear the emotional load on behalf of Nai Nai.
The ability to see the sweet side of the bitter elevates The Farewell from a handsomely filmed, flawlessly performed family comedy to a profound reflection on family ties and frayed bonds, on celebrating in the face of sadness and on balancing individual identity with shared roots. It’s an honest tale that achingly picks apart the complexities of life, and makes it feel like the most natural thing in the world.
The Farewell is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.