Movie Review: "The Farewell"

Director Lulu Wang’s 2019 film, “The Farewell,” marks her second feature film since her debut in 2014. Wang also wrote the screenplay for the film which was based on an episode of the radio program, “This American Life,” where Wang shared the story of her grandmother’s illness. The film follows Billi Wang and her family as they struggle with saying goodbye to their beloved matriarch, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer while also keeping her diagnosis a secret from her. At the helm of the ensemble cast is Awkwafina, who plays Billi Wang, Lulu Wang’s fictionalized persona, along with notable Hong Kong American actor Tzi Ma who plays Billi’s father, and Zhao Shu-Zhen who portrays Wang’s “Nai Nai” (grandmother) in the film.

One of the film’s focal points is the difference between East and Western culture in regards to family values. Billi struggles throughout the whole film with lying to her grandmother about her illness and the pain of knowing that this may be the last time she may ever see her grandmother. She constantly clashes with her family and their wishes to keep Nai Nai happy and unaware of the state of her health. 

Billi’s family has reunited after 25 years in China under the guise of her cousin Hao Hao getting married. Billi’s parents insisted that she stay in New York City due to her inability to hide her emotions from her grandmother. However, she ignores them and heads to China anyway. While she is certainly saying goodbye to her grandmother, this visit to China almost feels like a homecoming as she begins to recall the memories of her childhood before she left for the United States. Wang’s cinematographer, Anna Franquesa Solano, makes every shot feel so personal and as though stepping into the beautiful China of Billi’s youth. Billi spends as much time as she can with her grandmother but as time goes on she can’t help but feel frustrated with the situation she has been put in. Many of her relatives get emotional after some time but are still able to maintain their elaborate lie of her diagnosis. 

One of the remarkable parts of this film is quite frankly how universal its story is while being a deeply personal recollection from Wang’s own life. Billi is a symbol of all immigrant children who struggle with coming into constant conflict with the culture they grew up in while also respecting the culture of their parents and past generations. Awkwafina does an incredible job of making the viewer feel the frustration and tension between the family and her own emotions. Towards the end of the film, you can’t help but feel attached to these characters and cry at the thought of saying goodbye to your grandmother for the last time. Lulu Wang does an incredible job of pulling at the viewer's heartstrings and while the movie has its lighthearted moments, crying seems to be the only proper response at the end of this film. “The Farewell” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.