The Farewell (2019)

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The beginning of the story tells us that it is based on an actual lie, which adjusts our thinking about the film from the very beginning. The plot follows a Chinese family who learns that their beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has cancer. Following the old Chinese tradition (it is not cancer that kills a man, but fear), they decide not to tell her anything and organize the wedding of one of their relatives, which will be an opportunity for everyone to see her once again and pay their respects. Billie (Awkwafina), who moved to the US a long time ago, does not agree with this tradition and thinks that their decision is immoral. Arriving in her native China, she realizes that she feels like a fish out of water and becomes torn between her Chinese heritage and the American culture in which she grew up…

According to Lulu Wang, she always felt divided in her relationship with her family and her relationships with colleagues, friends and the world in which she lives. She felt on her skin the clash of two cultures and the true nature of the term immigrant, and such life stories, as a rule, represent quality material for a film (Dheepan). The main theme is the impending death of a beloved family member and the lie that surrounds it, but indirectly we follow the heroine who feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. There is also a tradition that I did not know about, but which I understand perfectly, although it can mean that the family is unable or unwilling to fully face the painful truth.

Dealing with such a situation is quite difficult, because our characters want to use the time they have left, but also to make Nai Nai the rest of her life as happy and painless as possible. A lie hides a very unpleasant truth, time passes even faster, and the family unsuccessfully deceives itself in an attempt to act as if nothing is happening. In such a relatively simple story, the very essence of humanity, life, sadness and bereavement is reflected. Life will return to normal without a loved one, but one memory will be enough to remind you that nothing is the same as before or that something will never be right again.

The Farewell contains a lot. In just an hour and a half, we follow how this bad news affects the family members, how they examine each other’s choice to tell grandma to lie, and after listening to their dialogues, we realize that this tradition is not as strange as it seemed at the beginning. Indirectly, we also follow decades-long family tensions between those who moved to the USA or Japan and those who remained in China. There is the insecurity of our heroine as she feels like a stranger on both continents and learns all over again about the details of the culture in which she was born. As the themes change, so does the tone of the film, and everything we watch will make us think.

All of the above promises a sad film, but you’ll be surprised how cheerful and full of life The Farewell is, except in the scenes when it directly confronts the problem. The script somehow bypasses the difficult themes of illness and death and tries to find joy, which it succeeds in doing. The concept that bliss comes from ignorance is taken to a higher level here and as such is a source of humor, however tragic the situation may seem. There are comic sequences in the details of the deception, but the author does not minimize the real sadness that our characters experience – I think that such a balance can only be made by someone who has survived it all.

The characters are quite human and finely developed, and the leading characters are Billy and Nai Nai. Akwafina has a reputation as an actress who portrays supporting comic characters, such as the one in Crazy Rich Asians and I am very surprised by her performance in this film. She stepped out of her comfort zone and very impressively presented a girl with internal conflicts, whose face changes a lot of emotions and still delivers everything in Mandarin, even though she was born in New York. Everyone from the cast is specific in their own way and they all contributed to the believability that the film leaves behind.