Many of the best films are personal, whether they be exact recreations of past events in the lives of those making them or simple adaptations of real life.
Writer/director Lulu Wang took a unique cultural moment from her own life for her second feature film, “The Farewell.”
“Based on an actual lie” as the film’s title card states, “The Farewell” fictionalizes a pivotal moment in Wang’s family as the structure for an intimate examination of life, joy and identity, both personal and cultural.
Billi, a Chinese-American immigrant, returns to China when her grandmother Nai Nai is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The film is a touching portrait of a multi-generational family in turmoil as they decide not to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis but plan a rushed wedding as an excuse for family to see her one last time.
Designed as an ensemble piece, the acting in “The Farewell” is strong throughout and yet it’s the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai that carries the heart and soul of Wang’s film.
Actress and rapper Awkwafina gives her best, most dramatic performance to date in her first leading role as Billi.
The usually demonstrative performer takes a measured approach to the character, often saying more with a look than words in an emotional, personal turn. This isn’t to say that Awkwafina lacks comedically here, as the moments of humor are delivered with ease.
Awkwafina’s ability to take heavier material and play it authenticity is a wonderful surprise that makes “The Farewell” something special.
However, the film’s true star is Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai, a perfect burst of warmth every time she appears on screen.
The first-time performer is tailor made for the pivotal role of grandmother and family matriarch with a presence that is equally regal and vibrant.
“The Farewell” works as well as it does because audiences are able to easily relate to and fall in love with Zhao’s natural performance. For 90 minutes, she is the audience’s “Nai Nai,” the Chinese word for grandmother.
Subtle and soulful, “The Farewell” is a masterful demonstration of restraint. It’s a film that could have easily been pushed to its comedic and dramatic limits with forceful, awards-bait exaggerations of dialogue.
Wang and her cast take a carefully considered, nuanced approach to the storytelling, giving moments time to breathe naturally without pulling away from the invasive awkwardness viewers will certainly feel at times throughout the film.
This does not mean that “The Farewell” is excessive with its time. Wang smartly jump cuts from scene to scene (or occasionally within the same moment) to give audiences the feeling of time or location changing without actually spending the time to show the action on screen.
Wang insists on a present audience to engage with her film, one that can react to moments as they happen naturally without prompting on the part of the filmmakers.
This is especially true when it comes to the shrewd decision to make “The Farewell” a multi-lingual piece of cinema.
Rather than force characters to speak English instead of their native language to accommodate American audiences, much of “The Farewell” is spoken in Mandarin with English subtitles. This language barrier plays as a character point for Billi, whose Chinese is admittedly not great, and allows for her to openly communicate with family members in English without Nai Nai understanding.
“The Farewell” is assured to be a top awards contender on the independent circuit. Though its place come Oscar season is less certain, Wang’s film is one of two features to be released so far in 2019 – “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” being the other – that could make major waves at the Academy Awards.
Wang could easily be nominated for her well-crafted screenplay and direction, while Awkwafina and Zhao are certainly worthy of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations respectively.
Powerfully subdued and thoughtful, “The Farewell” is a terrific independent film that will remain among the year’s best and one that is worth seeking out in theaters.