‘The Farewell’ Review: The Burden of Preserving One’s Happiness at the Expense of that of Another Family Member

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I remember all too well what it felt like to never properly say goodbye to my own loved ones. In writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, there’s a certain sense of pain and awkwardness present in knowing the truth but keeping everything secret from other family members only as a means of preserving their happiness. Sometimes I even wonder if my late uncle had a peaceful death as I’d like to think, but I look back at those moments and remember how I was also about to enter one of the most important periods of my life too, which was a cause for celebration. Even then I remember all too well about how hard it was to truly feel as if I could celebrate an occasion of that sort because I knew that somewhere else in my family, we only want to see those who we love most at their happiest – sometimes to the cost of our own. There were moments that felt almost like they could become difficult to think back upon, but if there’s anything else that makes The Farewell so beautiful, it’s the very thought that the film also makes looking back at the film even more rewarding.

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Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American woman who aspires to become a writer, and keeps a close relationship with her grandmother, called Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). She learns from her parents that Nai Nai has only a short time left to live, for she had been diagnosed with cancer but this has been kept a secret from her. Reluctant to take part in the family-wide lie that Nai Nai is getting better, she nevertheless joins them to see her grandmother for what could potentially become the last time she’ll see her beloved Nai Nai. Having finally reunited with her for what could potentially be the final time, the time she also spends with her family leaves her to reevaluate her already strained relationships with her parents, as they try to embrace the happiness of Nai Nai having another chance to see everyone coming together even if their reasons may not be the happiest of such. Looking back at how it all unfolds, there’s something so comforting about being able to see a family coming together – trying to settle their differences knowing that something big has happened in order to make a dying member feel proud of what’s become of them since they last got a chance to see everyone in the same space.

Lulu Wang’s film is never afraid to show how awkward moments like these with the family can be, especially as we try to prepare a farewell for Nai Nai with her being able to leave happily, but even as a situation like such can be incredibly complicated, trying to make yourself feel easy no matter how much your family can pressure you into feeling such would already be a great challenge on its own. But even as it makes for some of the funniest moments of the film, seeing it all build up into something more moving is what also makes The Farewell even more rewarding. It’s a film all about the sacrifices we must make in order to make those who have impacted our lives in the best ways happy, especially at a difficult time but also what it would eventually mean for us too. It’s a film made out of respect for what a family can go through at a period like this, especially as every relationship can be more strained by seeing one another again, but also about the importance of being able to bond together when there may not be another chance like this to come around very soon.

There was a part of me that was pondering about what my family has been doing with my late uncle at his final moments – were we always trying to keep him happy at the last moment I remember we could see him? My first impulse after having seen The Farewell was to think about how well my 92-year-old grandmother is doing. Her memory isn’t the best, but it also leaves me wondering what’s my family planning for what’ll happen when she’s about to leave too. Could it be a time for all of us to just reunite so that we can make her happy, even if it’d also mean that we would have to give up our own happiness too? Every moment when Shuzhen Zhao was onscreen, her performance only reminded me of what my grandmother is like right now. It struck me in the same sense that the films of Yasujiro Ozu would have done so whenever I come back to said films (albeit less formal), given how his steady portraits of family would linger upon the lies we tell one another and how they build up. Whether it be selfish or for mere protection, there’s so much truth I can see here coming into place, and it’s all so beautiful to see realized too.

Seeing Awkwafina in a more refined role in The Farewell perfectly captured the brokenness of what it feels like to be trapped in such a huge lie. But having already been used to her in more primarily comedic roles, it was seeing her in this film that convinced me how wonderfully talented she was – even if it may not have been my favourite performance in the film. But you can also feel the emptiness in her emotions because of the confusion that comes along the course with trying to preserve the lie for as much as you can, even it it may not be the most ethical decision on your end. It’s that emptiness that even makes the film’s more comedic moments land so beautifully, yet the most tragic moments feel even more painful. It’s painful when you know you’ve been there with Billi, feeling lucky to have some family members who you are still so closely connected with, only knowing that you may not ever have much chances to go out actively and see them anymore – but the beauty of what Lulu Wang presents here comes forth from the lifting of such a heavy burden off one’s back like it was your own.

Lately, any thought that I have about The Farewell only has me wanting to check on my grandmother to see how she’s doing. There’s also a part of me that would even want to show her this movie when she gets a chance, and see how she’d feel about it too. But every moment of that awkwardness in seeing so many estranged family members coming together felt all too real, because I knew this was something I’ve gone through at one point or another, and am certain to endure again in the future. Though what else can I take away from such a beautiful film? It just made me feel lucky I still have family that I’m not only very close with, but lucky to have such support coming anywhere at all. Watching The Farewell if anything had felt like being under a blanket, where you feel cozy and warm but also you’re left wondering if you’d feel happy to be feeling such. To say I’m thankful to Lulu Wang for being able to tell this story would be an understatement, but it also leaves me wondering what more she has in store for the future.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via A24.


Directed by Lulu Wang
Screenplay by Lulu Wang
Produced by Daniele Meliam Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, Anita Gou
Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo
Release Date: July 12, 2019
Running Time: 98 minutes

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