The Farewell

The farewell

Under the guise of attending a large wedding, Billi (Awkwafina) a young Chinese American woman, travels back to her homeland to meet her dying grandmother, the vivacious Nai Nai. Though recently diagnosed with lung cancer, the family discovers that the disease is already in the terminal stages and, in a decision that Billi finds strangely evasive, they decide to conceal this fact from her, because she’s too vulnerable to cope with it.

This predicament sets the stage for what is an amusing, bittersweet film about rediscovering and reconnecting with your cultural roots but also about the role family and possibly your ethnicity plays in shaping the person you eventually end up becoming. Billi’s confusion at the normality that her family displays in a situation that demands openness and confronting the truth are in sharp contrast to everyone else quietly accepting that this is the right thing to do. While there is clearly a culture clash as a result (Billi is deemed too American, too Western), it’s not head-on and instead employs a tempered, measured, almost thoughtful approach to the proceedings.

The Farewell’s avoidance of Eastern stereotypes (the family’s decision is sensibly explained later on) and innate ability to not give any answers while asking some really difficult ones about identity, accepting collective responsibility, how culture shapes us and the lure of the West for people who don’t live there or understand its value systems makes for thoughtful viewing, even though it may seem at first like this is a film about dealing with grief. The screenplay by director Lulu Wang (somewhat autobiographical) finds grace in its ability to successfully transplant us into the throes of this family and then transmit its point of view in clear, succinct and unambiguous ways without actually taking sides and throwing in some moments that cause light amusement (you could classify the film as a dramedy)

Despite all of this, The Farewell is also somewhat diminutive in scope and resolution. You almost wish there was more backstory, the spilling of a big family secret, a wild brouhaha of some sort. Perhaps we’ve been conditioned to accept this sort of crashing crescendo by too many other works of the genre but the film’s simplicity seems to hold it back sometimes. In all of this, however, you still come out appreciating its unique insight and the juggling of humour with the realities of a grim situation. I may not be Chinese or an American, but as a person of decidedly Eastern values living in a country that’s not really my own, I found much of Billi’s outsider dilemma very relatable. This ability to make the personal seem universal makes the Farewell uniquely rarefied.

Rating: ★★★★☆

About Faizan Rashid

A veteran Dubai based film critic, Faizan has been reviewing movies for nearly a decade. His work has been published in local newspapers such as 7days and on prestigious online websites such as MSN Arabia and