Director: Lulu Wang
Writer: Lulu Wang
Stars: Shuzhen Zhao, Awkwafina, X Mayo
A stunning exploration in collective grief, The Farewell hits like a freight train. Of course I’m saying this in part because it’s true and in part because Golden Globes nominated Awkwafina in this as a comedy and that in itself is a tragedy. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of The Farewell, I’ll briefly detail its jovial premise… The beloved matriarch, known as Nai Nai, of a slightly disjointed Chinese family is facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Her family collectively decides not to tell her this grave news so that they can all have her in high spirits as they spend their last moments with her. How jolly! I shouldn’t be too dismissive of the comedic elements in The Farewell. Lulu Wang’s voice shines through in nearly every scene, allowing the narrative to become grounded in such relatable urgency.
The Farewell features one of the best screenplays of the year in this regard by allowing the emotional vibrancy to propel each somber moment into the next with an air of mysticism. From the second we understand her diagnosis, Nai Nai becomes a near-cosmic being of triumph. Every time seeing her feels like it could be the last, and like Billi we yearn for more time with such a wonderful presence. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is largely in part to Shuzhen Zhao’s exceptional performance. The tenacity of such a character could easily be lost in a lesser performer, but Zhao is able to take it entirely in stride. She careens through the screen with such dominance that it takes you by surprise how much you actually care for her in the end. Like a magic trick, Zhao and Wang show you a powerful, grounded force of respectability while subtly manoeuvring their story to create an emotional tether. The trick is so masterful that by the time you reach the climax of this heartfelt journey (a shot from the rear view of a car, too rich to spoil), you will stare bewildered at your own emotional response to a story that could’ve otherwise felt so foreign and distant from your experience.
Perhaps that is only my relationship to The Farewell, but I don’t think I stand alone in that assessment. Of course, with a performer as powerful as Zhao, it becomes hard to fixate on anyone else. And largely, the performances in The Farewell are good, but they often lack the emotional catharsis that we get from Billi and Nai Nai. Exceptions exist (the uncle comes easily to mind), but The Farewell is so transfixed on its core relationship that it occasionally seems to miss opportunities to explore complexities that are only touched upon. It’s a loose critique (I know, and you’ll likely catch me writing that a lot in these next few choices), but I can’t have you thinking I would give anything a perfect 10, right? 9.5/10