Movie Review: The Farewell (Cmovie, 2019)

I recently moved back to my hometown to be near my family and am fortunate enough to be able to have lunch with my mom and my 98-year-old grandmother every Thursday. My grandmother has been my biggest fan and supporter my entire life and it’s been great for me to be able to spend more time with her after living far from home for so long.

The Farewell (the Chinese title, 别告诉她, translates to “Don’t tell her”), stars comedienne and rapper, Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Oceans 8), in a drama about a Chinese family trying to spend what time they have left with their dying matriarch without letting her know she is dying. I knew I had to see it, partly because of my own relationship with my grandmother which made the topic even more relatable to me, but also because I was eager to see a Chinese movie that takes place in everyday life as most of the ones I’ve been able to see so far have been much more centered in fantasy (see all my previous movie reviews).

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Based on a true lie, as the opening credits state, we first get introduced to Billi (Awkwafina), an aspiring writer living in New York, who has lost out on a Guggenheim Fellowship, is late on her rent and regularly calls her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in Changchun, China (northeast of Beijing). We are also introduced to her grandmother, Nai Nai (Chinese for paternal grandmother), who is at the hospital to get some tests done. We watch as the two talk, each telling little white lies so that the other person won’t worry about them, the same way as probably many of us do. We also see Nai Nai’s sister (Lu Hong – the actual sister replaying her own true life role in the story) getting the bad news from the doctor that Nai Nai is very ill and then reporting back to Nai Nai that the doctor says she’s in good health.

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An omen of things to come appears to Billi when she discovers a wild bird in her apartment for no reason (a sign that some superstitions believe is an omen of bad news or death). When she visits her parents, she learns that Nai Nai has stage four lung cancer and that the family has decided not to tell her. Instead they want to throw a wedding for her cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), as an excuse for the family to all go back to China to see her one last time.

Initially the family doesn’t want Billi to go, certain that she won’t be able to keep the secret. But she manages to get the money for the trip and joins them anyway. Billi struggles with the idea of keeping such big news from her grandmother and feels guilty about it while listening to all their elaborate plans for keeping this secret as well as talking to the doctor about her grandmother’s cancer. (Some of the scenes reminded me of the Netflix documentary All in My Family where the mother of a gay Chinese filmmaker instructs the family about what lies to tell their grandfather to explain his grandson suddenly having children even though he has not brought home a wife.) As various family members find it harder to keep their emotions in check, you keep watching to see if Nai Nai figures it out.

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Though a lot of the film is mainly about the various lies we tell our loved ones and why we tell them, there was also this secondary theme about life in China versus life in the US. There was a scene that was amusing to me where the manager at a hotel keeps asking Billi if the US is better than China and she keeps telling him “It’s just different.” (Every time I go to China, I feel like I’m asked this same thing a lot.)

In another scene, Billi’s mom (Diana Lin, The Family Law) argues with her sister-in-law about if living in the US is better than living in China and whether or not they consider themselves as Chinese regardless of where they live or as American because that’s where they live now. (This Chinese from China versus Chinese from another – usually Western – country conflict is something I see come up a lot in modern Chinese dramas and would love to see something that goes more in depth with it.) Though the conflict between the two is not delved into too deeply, you still can feel the added tension that the difference in location and culture brings in regards to how it affects the time they get to spend with Nai Nai and how they feel about their own familial responsibilities and everyone else’s.

I really enjoyed the story and especially Awkwafina’s performance. I’ve always liked her as a comedic actor, but am now an even bigger fan after seeing her take on this much more dramatic role. She performed so well, including having to learn Mandarin for the role, and I’m sure a big part was due to the influence of her own grandmother on her life. Tzi Ma (Wu Assassins, Veep) was great as Billi’s father who is trying to deal with his mother’s illness and his own struggles about having moved his family to the US.

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The story was well written and directed. Of course it is based on a true story about director Lulu Wang’s own grandmother. (You can hear her true life story on This American Life – warning: it’s basically a spoiler of the whole movie.) Wang does a great job retelling the story and conveying the emotions of that situation without being overly dramatic and by adding in a little humor. I liked the way the family stories unfold to Billi (and the audience) as she learns from the other members of the family why this lie is so important to them, the other lies they’ve been keeping, as well as when she shares her own frustrations with how family decisions have affected her life. As someone who enjoys learning more about Chinese culture, it was also interesting for me to understand more about these little differences that I either haven’t understood or even noticed before. But mostly it made me appreciate the time I get to spend with my grandmother and there was a scene near the end that definitely made me a bit teary-eyed.

This is a fantastic family drama and I highly recommend it. I know it came to my town a little later than the general release, but it looks like this movie may be going out to more theatres than most Chinese movies so please keep your eye out for it. And take someone you love.

Trailer:

*****

If you are interested in watching some very entertaining and insightful video essays about Chinese (and other Asian) movies, I highly recommend you check out Accented Cinema on YouTube. Hosted by a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker named Yang, he adds a lot more cultural context to different Chinese movies and helped me understand a lot of references that I had missed before. (And now I understand why there were gold monks in Let’s Shake It.)

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