"The Farewell" Review
The Farewell boasts career-defining work from the beloved icon Awkwafina as the Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi, and she is the lens through which this heart-wrenching tale is conveyed. Alongside her is the amazing woman cast as Billi's grandmother, known as "Nai Nai," in the movie, Zhao Shuzhen. Here, she makes her American film debut, and she is an absolute revelation in this film, a sight to behold on screen.
I came into this movie with a set stance on whether I’d elect to tell the grandmother of her terminal illness, but this movie did a great job of forcing me to question my own experience and conditioning that is the root and cause of that view. It is a common practice that abounds in a culturally specific context, and of course I am foreign to the idea as a Westerner. I also recognize the reasons why they would want to opt out of breaking the news to her for the sake of protecting her mental well-being. In a way, the family carries the cross for her by keeping the information to themselves, and it is an extraordinary act of love and compassion to allow the agony of the impending loss to fall squarely on their shoulders. I’m not saying I changed my mind by the end of it, but the movie sure did give my resolve a run for its money.
There are a few scenes in this film that are emotionally devastating and had me squalling like a newborn baby in the theater. I advise anyone with a functioning heart to bring a box of tissues, because this film has several tearjerking moments that are sort of unanticipated, but totally earned at the same time. It has universal themes of unquestioning love within one's extended family despite their differences and the lengths that family members will go to afford protection for their loved ones.
Often times, the film goes for a humorous slant during mournful moments, and I'll be honest, the timing of it and the tonal disparity did not always work for me. A couple times, it did, and I appreciate the effort, but at other times, I could not tell if the movie was trying to invoke a laugh out of me, or if the screenwriting was waggish for effect. It didn't take me out of the movie, because it did zip right along without pausing on a jokey moment or whatever it might be, so that is a plus.
Also, one thing that bothered me slightly is how elaborate the scheme is to trick Nai Nai into believing she's in full health and everything is peachy keen. I understand that the film is self-aware of the fact that its audience would be call into question the blatant lack of suspicion Nai Nai seems to have about the whole charade. Part of the movie's tension is contingent on the idea that Nai Nai might not be as naive as the family seems to think she is and she might've, in fact, been privy to the secret from the beginning. Although I enjoyed the painstaking planning that went into shielding her from the information, at times, the farce got so convoluted, that I almost couldn't believe she hadn't figured it out or at least how the family had not considered that she might have it figured out. Even if the grandmother knew, it wouldn't have made much of a difference on the character, because there was such a radiant love that bound her to her family, that she would've reciprocated the favor by not exposing the secret they worked so tirelessly to keep. I only wish the family had been a little more considerate of the fact that Nai Nai may not be so easily deceived.
Overall, I thought "The Farewell" is a gripping portrayal of a family desperately withholding a potentially harmful secret from a loved one and the effects and levels of grief that transpire after hearing the news of someone close to you getting diagnosed with terminal cancer. It tackles some thought-provoking concepts that will sit with you long after the credits are over, and it hones in on some subjects that are all part of the human experience in a fresh and exciting way. I enjoyed this movie a lot, and I delighted in Chinese culture getting more exposure in American film and Asian-American actors like Awkwafina having her innate talents recognized and brought to life on screen.
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© 2019 Logan Daniel Williamson