‘The Farewell’, a 2019 film directed by Lulu Wang piqued my interest because it has actor Awkwafina in the lead, the actor who stood out in the romantic hit film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ as the zany best friend of the protagonist.
In farewell, Awkwafina stars as Billi, who despite growing up in New York, is extremely attached to her paternal grandmother who has been left behind in China by her two sons. While the elder brother is settled in Japan, the younger one, Billi’s father, is settled in the U.S.
The central plot is about how both brothers decide it is best to shield their aging mother from the knowledge that she had been diagnosed with cancer and has only a few days to left to live.
“In America it would have been illegal (to not inform a person about their medical state)” Billi tries to argue with her parents, when they fly to China to spend some time with her grandmother. Since I am not from China, I am not sure how normal it is for families to get doctors to hide the real diagnosis from aging patients, but if the makers of this film are to be believed, apparently it’s very common.
‘In China, we have a saying, it’s not cancer that kills, it’s the fear of Cancer,” Billi’s mother explains. That seems to be the clinching logic.
The film is slightly slow, but the kind of slow that I don’t mind, because as a viewer I was prepared for a realistic, simple film that is just about a family trying to cope with the impeding death of a close relative. How fast or exciting can that be? To the director’s credit, she does manage to make this grim subject interesting and heart-warming. But this one is definitely not for the impatient viewer.
While Awkwafina is brilliant as lost 30 something emotional wreck, Han Chen, the actor who plays Hao Hao, is highly underrated as her first cousin who is forced into an early wedding with his girlfriend of three months, so that the entire family can fly to China and spend time with his grandmother without making it seem unnatural.
The entire cast slips into their roles effortlessly, there is no weak link in the movie, the casting director needs a pat on their back for the perfect ensemble. Despite being a lot about Chinese culture, ‘The Farewell’ has scenes and moments that are universal to families across the globe. The story not just explores the theme of death, but that of alienation from one’s roots and culture, and the sacrifices one makes for a supposedly ‘better’ life.
The cinematography is apt. While this film is not visually brilliant, it’s not artistically challenged either. The colors are just right, nothing too dark to metaphorically represent the looming death. I did have a little problem with the background music, sometimes it was too jarring, or way too serious against what was unfolding in the scene corresponding to the audio score.
Shuzen Zhao, who plays the grandmother, blissfully unaware of her cancerous state, is the star of the film, the matriarch the holds the entire cast and story together. Some of us may be in need of a handkerchief for the waterworks this little film turns on. The film ends on a surprisingly positive note and that’s the best part. You go in expecting a tear-jerker that might leave you as a ball of mess, but you are instead left with a feel good sense at the ending.