The Farewell [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #3]

Recently, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which cam out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #3.  Spoilers ahead.  

The Farewell

The Farewell

Directed by Lulu Wang

Release Date:  July 12, 2019
My age then:  49 years old

What it is about:  Billi, a young Chinese American woman, discovers that her  elderly grandmother (“Nai Nai”) is dying of cancer and has only three months to live, but doesn’t know it as her family is keeping the news secret from her.  Billi joins her family for her cousin’s wedding in China, which is really an excuse for the family to come together to see Nai Nai.  Billi’s time with her grandmother and the rest of her family impacts her deeply, waking her up to certain aspects of her culture and identity.

Starring Awkwafina as Billi, Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai, Tzi Ma as Billi’s father, Diana Lin as Billi’s mother, and Lu Hong as “Little Nai Nai”, or Nai Nai’s younger sister.  The story is based on Lulu Wangs’s real story, and Lu Hong is basically playing herself in this movie.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I didn’t know anything about this film before I picked it, and basically I decided to watch it purely on the basis of it starring Awkwafina, and that on the basis of her strong performance in Jumanji: The Next Level.

Reality:  Oddly, this shows off Awkwafina’s acting skills less than Jumanji did–not because she’s less good in it, but rather because the character she’s playing is simply more restrained and internal.  It is ultimately a more sophisticated performance, and it is certainly a better movie.

Maybe one of the first things that strikes me about The Farewell is how non-American it is.  I don’t mean un-American, like it’s looking down on the country, but rather just that the movie’s perspective and approach is not steeped in American sensibilities.  Given it’s basic premise–a young woman returns to China where she reconnects with her cultural roots–and the fact that it stars an American movie star and rapper, I’d have expected a healthy dose of quick-witted snarky humor before it was willing to get emotionally honest, but The Farewell offers nothing like that.

Instead, it’s a film which focuses on the sweetness of Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai, and her difficulty with the decision of her family to keep Nai Nai’s illness a secret.  Billi shows only great appreciation for her Chinese identity, even if she has difficulties completely understanding it.  There humor in the situations, but it’s free of mockery, and it never goes for the cheap laugh.  The result is tender and sweet-hearted film about a legitimately painful situation, which is genuinely heart-felt while remaining free of  unnecessary sentiment.

Shuzhen Zhao is very good as Nai Nai, bringing to the role warmth mixed with strength, bossiness and determination.  The rest of the supporting cast area all excellent as well.  I’m not familiar with any of them, although apparently Shuzen Zhao is pretty famous in China.

The story behind The Farewell is interesting–it was based apparently on some level on Lulu Wang’s real grandmother’s illness.  Apparently, the director kept the secret from her, even during the production of the movie (although she eventually found out).  Inspirationally, according to the final moments of the movie, the real Nai Nai was still alive (at least at that time), a full six years after her diagnosis!

So…when you get down to it, what did I think?  One of the things that good filmmaking can do is transport the audience to completely different worlds and into the minds of completely different people.  When this is done well, we learn both how unique every person and every situation is, as well as how universal many of the themes of life are.  The Farewell does all of this, quite beautifully.

See here for the Master List.


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