‘The Farewell’: A Culturally Influential Film Seeks the Laughter in Goodbye

BY SARAH JOHN

Finding a way to realistically portray grief is hard. Finding a way to realistically portray grief, while being funny in the process, is nearly inconceivable. And yet, this is exactly the feat director Lulu Wang takes on and succeeds at in The Farewell. In the new A24 film, a frank analysis of grief is balanced against warm family dynamics, smart comedy, and a tender affection for Chinese heritage.

PHOTO: The Farewell /  Instagram

PHOTO: The Farewell / Instagram

But first and foremost, The Farewell is —  as its tagline reads —  based on a real lie, creating a story rich with tension and awkwardness at all moments. In this case, the lie is the true story of Lulu Wang’s experience. It is the story of Billi (Awkwafina) who must keep a terminal cancer diagnosis secret from her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). 

This idea seems shocking to many viewers, but it’s actually quite commonplace in China. The film leans into the knowledge that many American audiences may find this practice strange. It thoughtfully shows a variety of cultural differences. In this way, the family’s trip back to China to mourn Nai Nai turns into a powerful portrait of what is lost when immigrants leave their home country.

This kind of layered discussion is good, real, and honest, and all too rarely put on-screen. This is why The Farewell is the stand-out that it is. It crosses the schisms and chasms that form in families over time — as people immigrate, grow apart, fight, and pass away. 

Many of the scenes in the film will stick with you. You’ll remember the way Bilili interacts with her grandma, Nai Nai long after leaving the theatre. The film’s very first moments are a phone conversation between the two, where Nai Nai urges Billi not to wear earrings around New York, where Billi lives (Nai Nai  heard that in New York, they’ll steal the earrings right out of your ears!). This moment felt lifted from my own conversations with family, in all its concern and lovingness. This was not the last time I felt that way in the theatre. 

And on top of all this depth, it’s funny. As in, The Farewell is genuinely a funny movie about a family coping with their grandmother’s impending death. The moments of humor are highlights of the viewing experience. Other gems of The The Farewell are the cinematography, used to carefully paint a loving picture of China, and the classical score, used to add drama and elegance to a story that already has both in abundance. 

The only things that disappoint in this movie are the moments when the audience — perhaps greedily — wants more of what is already being provided. Wang has assembled a cast of great actors for this movie. Showing more of Billi’s parents and cousins, and the dynamics between them, might have added an extra layer to this film. Similarly, there was a certain restraint in the film’s most powerful moments that left a yearning for more insight into Wang’s mind. But these thoughts were only ever a faint buzz against the great admiration that arises when watching.

In The Farewell, Lulu Wang has done something indescribably brave. It is, truly, the film I wish I had had as a child to help me cope when my family went through drastic loss. It takes a horrific, seldom-discussed experience, and makes it something that can be processed. Even better, it makes it something that can be processed with a smile, albeit a bittersweet one.  

In sum, The Farewell is a verifiable must-see.

Lead Image Credit: A24 / Giphy