****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. This art house pretender is a conventional film through and through and not good enough to see on the big screen. If you stumble upon it on Netflix or cable it is worth watching though.
The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, tells the story of Billi, a Chinese immigrant living in New York, who returns to China to visit her beloved grandmother Nai Nai, who is terminally ill but due to cultural and familial reasons is kept in the dark about her condition. The film stars Awkwafina as Billi with supporting turns from Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin and Chen Han.
In a clever little twist, the tagline for The Farewell is, “Based upon an actual lie”. When that flashed on the screen to open the film I chuckled, but by the end of the movie I realized this was not a joke but a confession. The Farewell isn’t just based upon an actual lie…it is a lie.
The Farewell has pretensions of profundity, but the movie ultimately ends up being rather trite and frivolous. The film certainly has art house ambitions but they never fully coalesce and sadly end up crashed against the rocks of a painful conventionality.
I was excited to see The Farewell, I thought the trailer was good and the premise struck a chord with me. The reason the premise resonated so deeply with me was because I went through a very similar situation with my own beloved grandmother when she was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. My family decided not to tell her about the diagnosis, and, like Billi, I disagreed with that decision. In my mind Truth is always the best way to go, and people have the right to know if they are going to die. I believe it is healthy, vital even, for terminal patients to go through the stages of grief, but in terms of the decision about not informing my grandmother, I didn’t have a vote in the process.
When I went, as did other extended family, to visit my grandmother to say goodbye, I did not break down and tell her she was dying. The truth is that once I saw her I totally understood why the choice was made not to tell her and I grudgingly agreed with it. I think my grandmother knew she was dying…but the fact that no one said it out loud, somehow made it all bearable for her and allowed her to bask in the glow of being surrounded by her entire family without falling into a maudlin well of despair. Instead, the visit with my grandmother was a joyous one, a celebration of life instead of an acknowledgement of death.
It was with all of this in mind that I went to see The Farewell. I was ready to get very invested in the characters and story but the film was never able to generate enough dramatic intensity or momentum to carry me along with it. I ended up being a bit frustrated as the movie touches upon some really interesting themes, but lacked the artistic and intellectual heft and commitment to say anything of worth about them. For instance, there is dinner table scene where Chinese national, cultural and ethnic identity mix with toxic familial politics, and the result is electric…but the film never truly returns to that topic in any satisfying way and it suffers because of it.
The film also tries to throw out some art house stylistic stuff…but then undermines it all by being horrifyingly Hollywood in its resolution. That to me was the biggest error in the film, the lack of a stylistic and a thematic focus combined with the lack of artistic courage, as the film repeatedly takes the “easy” road instead of the harder and more artistically fulfilling one.
I thought The Farewell was going to be a culturally interesting examination of grief and death but instead it turns into a a rather tired “family” movie with the requisite wedding and zany relatives and silliness that accompanies it. The deeper and darker themes are left behind as the Hollywood friendly fluff takes center stage. Granted, it is Hollywood friendly fluff wrapped in a “different than usual” culture, but it is fluff nonetheless. This seems to be the new Hollywood formula, take the same old garbage but set it and cast it with a new ethnicity/race/gender and bask in the glow of critical love. Crazy Rich Asians is an example of this, as it was really just another shitty rom-com…but with Asians! The Farewell is better than Crazy Rich Asians, but it still isn’t good or even remotely original…it is just a rehashing of a tired old formula…but with Asians!
I recently watched a fascinating documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and ensuing horrific massacre. The documentary was really interesting and it made me think the subject is ripe for a great feature film. Of course, a hard hitting film on that subject would never happen as Hollywood is scared to death of China and wants to curry favor with the totalitarian ruling regime in order to keep a critical and fertile market open so they can make hordes of cash by selling their shitty movies to Chinese audiences. In the current climate of the movie industry, if Hollywood ever were to make a Tiananmen Square film a successful pitch for it would most certainly be…imagine Schindler’s List...meets Friends…but with Asians!! No doubt Jackie Chan and Awkwafina would be tapped to star in it and the repressive government who committed the atrocity would have to be changed from China to Russia in order to ensure the film’s release and success in China. The film would be awful but critics would laud it for its “diversity and inclusivity” and it would end up with a 100% critical score at Rotten Tomatoes and a plethora of Oscar nominations. Sigh.
In terms of The Farewell, the very best thing about it is the character Nai Nai, wonderfully played by Zhao Shuzhen. Even though Nai Nai is Chinese, she not only reminded me of my wondrously Scottish grandmother, but actual somehow looks like her too. Shuzhen’s performance is extremely well-done, as she creates a multi-dimensional character where others would have gone for flat stereotype. I hope Zhao Shuzhen scores at least a Best Supporting Actress nomination this year because with her work in The Farewell certainly deserves it.
Awkwafina also does solid work in the film as the mopey lead. I am not really a fan of Awkwafina, the truth is I am not very familiar with her work, but I thought she did an exceptional job of manifesting her character’s emotional and cultural burden physically. Billi is a walking slouch, the cross on her back growing heavier and heavier with every step. Awkwafina really does have an undeniable, slightly off-beat charisma to her, and I hope she chooses to do more of these types of roles in the future.
Diana Lin and Tzi Ma play Billi’s mother and father respectively and they too do solid work. The couple have a palpable relationship fatigue about them that rings true. Lin’s sharp elbowed mother is a perfect foil for Ma’s down trodden father.
In conclusion, I felt like The Farewell was not just telling the story of a lie but telling a lie itself. it is not what it appears to be, and when the truth of it is revealed, its value greatly diminishes. I didn’t hate The Farewell, but I was disappointed in it, as it wasn’t what it pretended to be, and ultimately, thought it could have been so much more than it was. Unlike the family in The Farewell, I will not lie in order to spare feelings and so I say it as clearly as I can about this movie…it may not be dying…but it is definitely dead to me.