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Film Recommendation: The Farewell (2019)

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

The Farewell is about the mundane, but a wonderfully intricate mundane. It transcends cultural barriers in the name of family. Writer/director Lulu Wang’s second feature is as warm and unpretentious as a heart-to-heart with your grandmother should be, and its humorous elements will make you giggle to yourself just as much as its heart-rending details will make you gasp.

This endearing comedy-drama tells the story of a Chinese family and their decision and struggles to shield Nai Nai, their grandmother and matriarch, from the consuming burden of her terminal diagnosis. This is a custom in the East, where it is commonly believed that people with cancer die not because of the cancer but because of the fear of it—the disease, the suffering, and the death. Billi, played by Awkwafina, is the Americanised granddaughter who, upon hearing about her paternal grandmother’s stage-four lung cancer, is afraid of losing the only remaining force that keeps her connected to her roots. True to her Western philosophies, she disagrees with her relatives’ call to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her disease. Billi’s pain becomes even more palpable when she arrives in her hometown of Changchun in China and comes face-to-face with her grandmother under the false pretense of attending cousin Hao Hao’s wedding, which is meant to be a smoke screen for the family to bid farewell to their matriarch.

Family dynamics come to life through the subtle, yet precise, plot and cinematography. The characters drift apart and come together as they attempt to cope with the impending loss of Nai Nai in their own ways. Estranged brothers smoke, competitive mothers compare, and in-laws gossip as children and grandchildren silently mourn. The experience of watching The Farewell is one that is culturally distinct, yet universally fathomable. The spirit of any family translates through chaotic conversations over dinner reunions, encounters and interactions during weddings, and tears and hugs at funerals.

The cast of The Farewell deserves applause for their collaboration and coalescence to create such a well-acted film. Awkwafina’s exceptional performance as Billi lets the audience peer into the lives of many immigrants/emigrants, and China’s beloved “screen mother” Zhao Shu-zhen’s portrayal of Nai Nai adds color to the film. The supporting characters in particular should be hugely credited for adding dimension to the protagonists and the story as a whole. Haiyan’s grudging stoicism, Haibin’s icy resolve, Jian’s fickle temper, and the comic relief that the characters Hao Hao and Aiko provide are all thanks to the actors’ mastery of their craft.

 I watched The Farewell sometime during my second week of isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, meaning that I was chore-less and had lots of time to spare. This semi-autobiographical film is more slow-paced than what I would normally watch, but its warmth makes up for its slowness. It reminds me of my own late nai nai, whose hands I used to hold every day after school. It is also a reminder of human contact, a luxury not many can afford during this crisis. Watching this film in this social context is a heartwarming experience—it makes home feel like home again.

The Farewell is a poignant story about family and identity conveyed with a rare depth and honesty. It is a story that is set in a foreign culture but resonates with anyone who is fortunate enough to have stumbled upon it. It is a story that startles you with its emotional complexity and philosophical profoundness. It is a story that moves and overwhelms—a story to be remembered and held close to the heart.

Alexa (she/her) is a freshman at UC San Diego majoring in Cognitive Science. She was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. She loves reading, writing, and playing Genshin Impact. Alexa hopes to become a novelist or video game writer in the future.
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