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Sunday, April 7, 2019

AFF '19: THE FAREWELL is a moving and funny look at family and culture

We've all seen the film about a family that is brought together by the illness or death of a loved one, wrought with melodrama and big, broad performances. The Farewell is not that. 

The Farewell is based on the true story of director Lulu Wang's family in the wake of the news that her grandmother is diagnosed with lung cancer and given only a few months to live. Here's the twist: she doesn't know she's dying, and her family want to keep it that way. Billi (Awkwafina) travels back to China with her parents to meet up with her grandmother and the rest of her family as they plan a fake wedding for her cousin as an excuse to get the whole family together to see her one last time. Billi struggles with keeping up the lie her family has collectively decided to tell amidst their squabbles about whether her parents should have stayed in China, all the while trying to spend quality time with her grandma for the last time.

The setup is a pretty fantastic one to begin with, ripe with darkly comic possibilities, but Wang, Awkafina, and the rest of the cast produce something even better than expected. Written out, it sounds a bit like a straight comedy, but in the universe of the film the reasons for the elaborate ruse feel so grounded that it only feels absurd when the mood is temporarily lightened; as Billi's uncle explains, it is her family's duty to "carry the emotional burden" for her grandma. As Billi struggles to negotiate the tricky task of saying goodbye without actually saying it, this also brings to the forefront the cultural differences between herself as a Chinese-American and her relatives who chose to stay in China or move to Japan.

The performances in the movie are strong across the board. Awkwafina shines as Billi, imbuing the role with genuine melancholy and love. However, the heart of the film is in the performance of Shuzhen Zhou as Nai Nai (grandmother), who any viewer can't help but see their own grandma in. She is very funny, sweet, and endearing throughout, and Zhou serves as the emotional anchor of the movie.

Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano opt for wide still shots and long takes rather than cutting between closeups, and this unconventional approach to such an emotional story offers a much more interesting visual experience. As Wang explained after the screening, she liked the "awkwardness in still frames" and even used horror movies as a reference point for how to portray something unsettling that's in the room that nobody can talk about, and this approach really accentuates the delicate and often uncomfortable family dynamics in the story.

The Farewell is a really interesting movie because on one hand it offers a fascinatingly intimate look at unique Chinese culture surrounding death, but on the other shows that familial tragedy is in some ways universal. It's a rich and rewarding film that offers beautiful small moments of contemplation while never losing its sense of pace, and if all that isn't enough for you, there's a reveal at the very end that brings further meaning. Highly recommended!

The Farewell is written and directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhou, Tzi Ma, and Diana Lin, and premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It is set for a wider release on July 12th under distribution by A24.
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