Alice O’Hare reviews The Farewell, showing in our cinema from Friday 18 to Thursday 24 October.
One might assume that a film centred around the consequences of lying would be a pretty gritty affair. The Farewell is precisely the former (bolding pronouncing that it is ‘based on an actual lie’) yet the opposite of the latter, instead a heart-warming exploration of family, morality and belonging.
The events of The Farewell begin with a small lie, as protagonist Billi – struggling Chinese-American student played by the superb Awkwafina – tells her fussy but loving grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) she’s wearing a hat when in fact she’s most definitely not. In return, Nai Nai tells her granddaughter she’s at home when actually she’s about to have a CT scan. The lying continues to spiral as it is discovered that Nai Nai has terminal cancer; however, the family decide she need not know, arranging a wedding-turned-farewell as an excuse to get the family back together before Nai Nai’s expected passing.
Where The Farewell shines is away from its initial New York setting, most notably in the lively scenes where the entire family are gathered around the dinner table and contrasting nationalities and cultures come face to face. Billi is definitive of this clash, the values instilled within her as a result of her American upbringing at conflict with her loyalty to her family. As she embodies the film’s core questions of whether or not lying can ever be okay if it is deemed to be in someone’s best interest, and whether one can ever truly let go of their heritage, we find ourselves siding with Billi and her desperation to tell the truth, Awkwafina delivering an understated but confident performance in the central role.
For all the bustle of the New York-based opening, the China-based scenes are of a slower pace, echoed by the muted colours of the landscape. It is these moments whereby Billi is exposed to the change her hometown has experienced since she left that are some of the most thought-provoking of the film. Through Billi’s self-doubt and shock at what she finds on her return, the film draws attention to the demolition of homes and removal of green spaces in modern China, director Lulu Wang clearly remarking that urbanisation does not necessarily result in progress. This message is hammered home further by the fact that technology cannot seem to solve real problems such as Nai Nai’s illness.
Despite its serious messages, what makes The Farewell such an endearing watch is its humour. Nai Nai provides a wealth of dark laughs, her lack of knowledge of the real situation she faces tactfully used as a source of comic relief. Similarly, the clash of cultures and values is often played for laughs, language barriers for example providing in equal measure both hilarity and a strident reminder of the issues really at stake. It is a film that conjures and perfectly balances a full spectrum of emotions, not all of them wanted, but most certainly needed.