Finding the truth and realism and shining a spotlight directly upon it has been a staple of cinema for a long time. This works particularly well when highlighting and showcasing cultural differences and The Farewell does this fantastically. The idea is a strange but apparently a very factual one; a wedding is “staged” to bring the extended family together to say goodbye to the Grandmother of the family, who is unaware that she is dying of cancer and the family want it to stay that way.
From this description alone it feels like a quite morbid movie, and at times you’ll feel the weight of the terminal person hanging over the movie, but it is played more as a “fish-out-of-water” comedic drama, asking a very interesting question about whether ignorance better for the person concerned or whether it would be more appropriate if she knew her fate.
What makes this even more refreshing is that the “fish-out-of-water” is not a White person being brought into a new culture but in fact a young Chinese woman, who has lost touch with her cultural roots, become “Americanised” and is being reintroduced to aspects of her childhood she has become disconnected from. This person is Billi, played by rising star Awkwafina. Awkwafina is cast really well here, as she plays the strong emotion and deeper moments really well but also sells the ridiculousness in her own unique, comedic style which is beginning to make her a household name.
Its those scenes, where she finds herself reacting to the cultural aspects she is not familiar with, that keep the film entertaining. It never points the finger and laughs at Chinese culture but instead highlights the differences and lets Awkwafina feel like she is lost in her own family, an aspect played for both laughs and heartbreak at times. Instead of being a film about grief and loss, although those are of course touched upon, this is a film about family and the importance of knowing where we came from.
To this end, the film works really well. You become smitten with the family and want to see their family dinners, squabbles, moments of drama or close calls with the Grandmother as she gets close to figuring out what this wedding is all about. You feel their heartbreak, their deeper moments and the revelations which are unearthed when this many members of estranged family are forced together.
You are never too far away from the central focus of The Farewell though. However, it may leave you feeling slightly short-changed. Whether its because the movie is striving for a feel-good tone, that it is based on a true-story or that because writer/director Lulu Wang didn’t feel it necessary, the ending doesn’t necessarily go in the direction you would expect. This is surprising but also means we never get the “punch” this film really needs and it leaves The Farewell feeling slightly too shallow and well-meaning.
Overall, The Farewell is a story about family and accepting your roots, hidden in a movie which should be about grief. The characters are well-realised and Awkwafina demonstrates why she is a rising star. However, it never really delivers on its premise and the movie is too “feel-good” considering the subject material.
Rating – 3.5
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