Movie Review: The Farewell

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3 stars

PG |

Director: Lulu Wang

Writer: Lulu Wang

by Jason Koenigsberg

The Farewell is advertised as a movie about the difficulties families deal with when a loved one is facing death. It is kind of about life and death, but The Farewell is more about gaps. The cultural gaps and generational gaps that families face when dealing with trying times. It examines these gaps in funny and realistic ways, never too overbearing with tugging at emotional heartstrings and trying to manipulate the audience. When a weaker film would be overly sentimental The Farewell is able to balance the emotional weight the characters are feeling without going overboard and becoming toxically saccharin. 

The film opens up with a shot of a landscape with green grass, blue water, and pink flowers, but the audience quickly learns that this is a waiting room in a hospital. An elderly Chinese woman is getting diagnosed with inoperable stage four lung cancer and is given about three months left to live. Her sister decides that it would be best that she does not know her fate and so tells the rest of their family in China and in America her diagnosis and to play along and not let her know. According to The Farewell, this is an old Chinese tradition. Her granddaughter Billi, played by Awkwafina in a very promising dramatic role which is also her first lead role, is perturbed by the fact that her grandmother has to be kept in the dark. She wants to tell her grandma the truth but is feeling pressured by her family to follow suit and play along. The family all travels from New York City to China and stage an elaborate ruse of a fake wedding to celebrate the grandmother’s life, but she will think that it is a wedding for her grandson.  

That premise leads to an internal tug-of-war for the main character as she is torn between the young, more honest modern way of thinking versus the old long-standing Chinese tradition. The Farewell is an examination of how the generation gap is tested in times where families are faced with their mortality. What is the proper way to deal with the inevitable when people know that it is coming? There is no right answer and the movie makes cases both for the old ways and the new. Another film would take a stand and have scenes where the audience will side with our main character or decide to have a scene where she has an epiphany and realizes that the old Chinese way is nobler than the American path of honesty and dealing with reality. Thankfully none of that happens and the audience and our main character are left to decide for themselves which method is better. This examination of Millenials dealing with older values is one that every family faces regardless of their cultural background and that universal theme makes The Farewell more poignant and impressive. 

This movie also examines the cultural gap as well as the generational gap. It is more than just an East vs. West values struggle. Even the Chinese members of the family that live in China are having doubts and difficulties containing their emotions as they lie to their matriarch. The Farewell is about identity as much as it is the vast differences in their cultures. Is a Chinese-American citizen Chinese first or do they consider themselves more American because they have a United States passport? These are questions The Farewell asks of its characters and there is no right answer.

Last August, almost exactly a year ago audiences were going crazy for Crazy Rich Asians. That movie was a basic rom-com that we have seen done a thousand times but was only unique because of it’s Asian cast and that it felt more like a two-hour advertisement to make audiences want to go on vacation in Singapore. It did not raise the same questions about the cultural gap, generational gap, or identity that The Farewell does. Few movies really delve deep into those examinations of family values in a mature way. Even fewer do so about Asian culture clashing with American values. Indie filmmaker Wayne Wang touched on that with his films Chan is Missing (1982) and The Joy Luck Club (1993), now in 2019 Lulu Wang (no relation that I know of) has taken the torch from him as she has written and directed a movie that transcends the culture of her roots and works as an examination of universal themes to all families. The Farewell is much more than just a film about an old Chinese lady dying. It is a film about living life and accepting traditions that differ from your own personal values. The final shot is a beauty and the moment that follows as the credits are about to roll reminds us of the tagline that this movie is based on an actual lie make it one of the more memorable movies this summer. 

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