The Movie Waffler Sundance London 2019 Review - THE FAREWELL | The Movie Waffler


Sundance London 2019 Review - THE FAREWELL

the farewell review
A Chinese-American woman returns to China when her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, a condition kept as a secret from the matriarch.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Lulu Wang

Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Gil Perez-Abraham, Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Ines Laimins

the farewell poster

Sundance London are lucky to be receiving the most critically acclaimed feature film from the main festival yet again. Last year’s edition featured Eighth Grade, this year we’ve been blessed with The Farewell. Let’s hope that, unlike the case with Eighth Grade, filmmaker Lulu Wang has a much shorter time dealing with potential British distributors, because her film is right up our alley - The Farewell is the best tragicomedy in years, and generally one of the very best films of the year.

the farewell review

Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina) heads to China after her beloved grandma Nai Nai is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Billi’s family gather together and decide to stage a wedding to warrant a family reunion. But it’s really just a way for them to all be together with grandma for one final time, without letting her know that she doesn’t have long to live. Nai Nai, overjoyed at the prospect of seeing the whole clan, has no idea about the extent of her illness, and Billi is conflicted about the conundrum of keeping the diagnosis a secret from her. It’s a heartbreaking but hilarious story, as the festive excitement clashes with a sad reality.

Nai Nai is intensely passive-aggressive as much she is adoring of her relatives, and her favourite term of endearment for Billi is "stupid child!" The truth is, she loves them all to bits but her long life has taught her lessons on life and relationships that she simply wants to pass onto the next generations - we agree with her verbal thwacks on her "unaffectionate" grandson and his soon-to-be-wife, and we’re confident for Billi when Nai Nai reassures her that she’ll face difficulties in life but will be fine if she keeps an open mind, when Billi is quietly reeling from being rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship.

the farewell review

The Farewell is one of those films about an elderly person with a short time to live where the elderly character isn't on the deathbed or low on energy. It’s in fact the total opposite - Nai Nai is the most exuberant being in any room. Playing the bossy but lovable grandma is Zhao Shuzhen, who’s an utter joy to watch. You can't help but wish she was your own grandma, no matter how much you love your actual nanny. It's so easy to establish a strong connection to her because Shuzhen injects a lot of real 'granny-ness' into the character, so when the film approaches its inevitable climax, it's impossible to hold back tears.

Alongside her, there are outstanding performances across the board, but Awkwafina - as we've never seen her - is truly special, knocking it out of the park as the central character. Wang’s screenplay is dynamite, extremely rich in theme and emotion through character, and she works in tandem with her leading actress's strong, sympathetic performance, to explore the struggles of being in the middle of a cross-border family, connecting to our cultural heritage, the chasm within a hyphenated identity, and the importance of spending honest time with family.

the farewell review

Wang's film is impeccably directed, precise in its framing and displaying an envious understanding of mise-en-scene. Perhaps one of my most favourite scenes is a wedding photoshoot wherein the camera hangs back a little and has Billi and Nai Nai commenting on the shoot of the engaged couple while it takes place in the background. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that packs a lot of character moments and humour into a single frame.

As a second generation immigrant myself, I found The Farewell extremely resonant and brilliantly funny, a feeling I last got from watching the masterful 'Parents' episode of Aziz Ansari's Master of None some years back. But that comparison is merely of my emotional response rather than implying any narrative similarities, for this immigrant experience is in a class of its own. By telling such a personal true story ("based on an actual lie") with incredible finesse, The Farewell is a magnificent calling card for the adept Lulu Wang.

The Farewell is in UK/ROI cinemas September 20th.

2019 movie reviews