Out of all the grandmas, in all the grandma villages, of all the grandma worlds, Shuzhen Zhao in The Farewell stands alone, my friends.
The Farewell is a new A24 film that comes to us from writer and director Lulu Wang, which is her second feature film. Her first, Posthumous, is a movie that I’ve never seen but boasts an impressive cast with Jack Huston, Brit Marling, Lambert Wilson and Tom Schilling.
The film is also very cleverly marketed as being ‘based on a true lie,’ as this is an autobiographical story about events in Wangs’ life from six years ago.
Billi (Awkwafina, and my GOD what a performance she gives) may have moved to America when she was young, but she still talks to her grandmother, who she calls Nai Nai (Zhao), in China on almost a daily basis.
Honestly, it’s cute as hell, too. As established in one of The Farewell’s opening scenes, the two of them tell each other just about everything. It’s adorable.
That’s why when Billi finds out from her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and only has about three months to live, she doesn’t know how to take it.
Not only does she not know how to take it, but she also is hardly even allowed to talk about it.
Now, before we go any further, I’m going to point out that I am not, in any way, an expert on Chinese culture and I’m not going to pretend to be. Please, by all means, seek out Chinese critics or those with some more knowledge about the culture and read their reviews of The Farewell and other movies. That’s a perspective I can’t give you, but one that’s still vital to have.
That being said, I’ll tell you what I know. In China and some other Asian cultures, it’s custom not to tell an elderly person that they are dying. Instead, the doctor will hand the news to a family member and, from that point on, it’s up to them how they want to handle the situation.
In some cases, the family will then chose not to tell the individual so that they’re final months don’t have to be spent in fear — a fear that some believe is the true cause of death in the first place.
So, given that they did the same thing for Nai Nai's husband when he became sick, the family agrees they aren’t going to tell Nai Nai. They still all want to see her one last time, though, so they come up with this excuse to host a wedding for Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), so they can all visit China.
Once there, though, Billi finds herself somewhat conflicted. She doesn’t want to go against her family or her customs, but she also has a hard time grasping the situation as she constantly finds herself wondering whether or not this is really the right thing for Nai Nai.
The Farewell is a bit of a change of pace for A24 as this is, if memory serves, the first time they’ve put out a PG-rated film. I love Midsommar and The Last Black Man in San Francisco to death, but it’s also kind of refreshing for them to hit us with something that you can watch with your family like this.
Strictly speaking, this also isn’t the first time that this story has been told to the public before.
It is, of course, the first time that Wang has made a film about it, but she has also been the subject of a New York Times article and an NPR segment in years prior.
I say that because, upon initially seeing the trailer for The Farewell, I did go look up those articles and therefore knew a good chunk of the story before walking into the theater. Yet, even when knowing that, it didn’t take away my enjoyment of The Farewell in the slightest as this is a really personal, really insightful and somehow still a really funny film.
What I really like about The Farewell is how close and intimate you can tell this is to Wang’s life. Throughout the entire course of this movie, you can feel her wrestling with this idea and whether or not it’s the right or wrong thing. Whether that takes the form of arguments around the dinner table about the difference between American and Chinese culture or it’s Billi’s internal way of dealing with all of this, I found myself fascinated at how far Wang was willing to dive into this subject and just let the emotions fly.
The emotions do fly, too — maybe not in all the ways or at the times you’re expecting, but The Farewell still gets there by the time the credits roll.
I’m pretty sure there are not enough words in the English language to describe how good Awkwafina is in this movie, as I’m pretty sure she’s getting nominated for her performance (and if she doesn’t, that’s on the Academy). I’ve always thought she was fine playing comedic-relief characters in stuff like Crazy, Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, but there’s still always been that part of me that’s wondered what she could do with a role that she really sinks her teeth into.
Then, much like Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, she gets this chance to shine and play a character who feels so human and real, which she just knocks out of the park and then some.
She’s not the only one who’s great, either. In some ways, The Farewell feels like an ensemble piece as it’s really about how each family member — whether that be Billi’s parents, uncles, cousin, etc. — is reacting to this situation. In fact, if I have a complaint against this movie, it’s that I wish we could spend more time with some of those supporting characters because everyone is really good in here.
There’s two I’m going to specifically call-out. I thought Diana Lin was brilliant as Billi’s mother, as she has a different relationship with Nai Nai than most of the other characters and is dealing with everything in different ways. The second, of course, is Zhao, as she plays one of the funniest and cutest grandmothers ever put to screen.
It’s been said that the more specific you are in a film, the more relatable it becomes. I’m not Chinese. I, embarrassingly, haven’t even been to China. The custom depicted is something I am not familiar with in the slightest. Yet, when watching The Farewell, I begin to see traces of my own family in there. Maybe not exactly to a tee, but you can still recognize those different mindsets and relatable arguments when everyone comes together in this way.
I admire that. I admire how Wang takes this very specific, personal story and opens herself up to the world. I admire how she’s able to incorporate a lot of humor (some of it is a little awkwardly placed and it’s maybe not as quick-witted as you’re expecting, I’ll admit) in there, too. In the end, I admire what this movie is trying to do and, ultimately, how well it does it.
Watch the trailer for The Farewell here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought of the film!