Lulu Wang’s The Farewell offers up an immediately gripping premise and executes it flawlessly, tackling a heavy topic with both grace and levity. Young Chinese-American Billi, already struggling with accepting the fact that she has been rejected for a Fellowship, is devastated to learn that her grandmother back in China is dying of cancer and is baffled when she learns that her family intends to never tell Grandma Nai Nai. Instead, they are planning a fake wedding as an excuse to bring the family together so she can be blissfully ignorant in her final months. Billi is conflicted, stuck between worlds on so many levels.
Culture clash rests at the heart of this movie, with both sides offering up compelling arguments. What results is one of the most bittersweet experiences I have had with cinema. Every joyful moment Nai Nai experiences highlights the tragedy for the rest of the family. People break down in tears and are forced to mask their devastation as bliss to avoid suspicions. The film never tries to answer whether one option is better than the other, instead supplying reasons for Billi to go along with her family despite her disagreements. There’s no solid answer for grieving.
The emotional weight is flawlessly captured by Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography. The central figures are commonly framed with an expansive background, only a small piece of the full picture. Several shots are neatly arranged to feature the entire family, grandma crowded at the center while the younger cousin is often captured playing with electronics a few steps back.
Wang plays as much in the sonic landscape. The score is loaded with melancholic vocal pieces and striking strings. The music is allowed to overtake the scene at key moments, evoking emotions that can’t be expressed with diegetic sound.
The editing and transitions are key in balancing the humor and drama of the piece, bubbling turmoil cut down with mundane shots of Nai Nai going about her day. The Farewell draws out several of its shots, making great use of deep space to lessen the need for cutting as several characters manage to carry a conversation within the frame. The Farewell only cuts when it is required, capturing the aesthetics of the slow cinema movement without ever feeling slow itself. Between her visual composition and tackling of family dynamics, Lulu Wang has really captured what makes Hirokazu Kore-eda’s works so compelling.
The dire concept is balanced with Nai Nai’s charm. Free of the knowledge of her death, she’s happy to act as her usual self. The way she speaks to Billi seems a bit callous until it’s clear Billi is happy to go along. Nai Nai is granted a certain bluntness in how she speaks with others, which helps raise the tension (and comedy) when she’s so quick to point out that everyone looks sad.
This is an ensemble piece and the performances are largely phenomenal. Awkwafina captures the air of a young woman lost with a sense of aimlessness, seemingly the black sheep in her family. The quiet tension in her gaze as she reluctantly plays along says so much. Nai Nai can only be as charming as her actress, and Zhao Shuzhen does wonders. Even the less central figures get their moments to shine, such as Diana Lin as Billi’s mother who can’t hide the distance she feels with the family she married into. Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara are given little dialogue as the ‘engaged’ couple, but both say so much with that silence. Chen Han spends most of the film bawling his eyes out, as if being so central in the sham gives him the most freedom to express emotionally what he can’t say with words. Aoi’s Aiko appears dazed, unable to communicate with almost anyone due to a language barrier and likely overwhelmed with the scenario.
If this is not the best movie of 2019, it will only be because this year will have graced us with two true masterpieces. Matching a powerful theme with stellar artistry and a wonderful cast, The Farewell is a prime example of how to do drama properly. It’s not as simple as telling a compelling story, but reinforcing it from every angle. The concept, theme, technique, performances, everything works in perfect harmony to craft an emotionally riveting experience. Though this is not a long film, every image and every moment is so densely packed that it offers an endless supply to ponder over. To be brought into another’s view of the world and learn so much while also being thoroughly engaged, The Farewell is a perfect example of why movies are a perfect art form for capturing emotional truths that can’t be expressed in words.
5 Stars Out of 5