No matter how much we may not want to think about it, death will come for us all eventually. How each of us deals with the demise of those we love, expected or not, is an intensely personal choice — one that is dealt with at length in The Farewell.
Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the matriarch of a Chinese family, has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Instead of informing her of this dire fact, the rest of the family uses an established cultural tradition to hide her diagnosis from her. Wanting a chance to say goodbye while they still can, the family decides to throw an impromptu wedding so people will have an excuse to travel back home.
Those coming include Billi (Awkwafina), who lives with her mom and dad in New York City. Having lived in the U.S. since she was 6 years old, Billi is unaccustomed to the way things are done in China and has a difficult time accepting the choice not to tell Nai Nai of her fate. Careful not to reveal their true feelings to Nai Nai, the family reconnects and debates the choice over several bittersweet days.
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is a nice juxtaposition to 2018's Crazy Rich Asians, which also featured an all-Asian cast. The family here is of relatively modest means, which allows Wang to dive deep into their unique relationships. Unlike that other big-budget film, The Farewell features mostly Chinese dialogue, with a deviation into English where appropriate. This allows Wang and the cast to fully develop the authenticity of the story.
Whether you agree with the family’s decision, the film is a sweet and tender look at the universality of family. Different members poke fun at each other, chide others on their behavior, or commiserate on their inability to change the situation, with each instance drawing the audience in more and more.
To this point in her career, Awkwafina had been known for the comic brashness of her characters and music. And while that will likely still play a big part in her career, she shows a completely different side in this film, one that should provide many dramatic opportunities if she so chooses. The rest of the cast — some familiar, most not — all play their parts exceedingly well, driving home the point of family even more.
No matter where you come from, you’ll likely find some point of connection with The Farewell. The film’s themes of love and loss resonate far beyond its Chinese location, thanks to a talented cast and deft writing and directing.