Review: The Farewell


First shared as a story on the radio show This American Life, The Farewell is the second feature-length film by writer-director Lulu Wang. The Farewell is a deeply personal, both cheerful and solemn film about identity, the immigrant experience, and the role of family.

Billi (Awkwafina) was a young child when her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), immigrated to America from China. As a young adult, Billi is an aspiring writer who remains close with her paternal grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). Billi visits her somber parents at her childhood home to learn that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer and only has a short time to live.

In China, it is customary to hide a terminal diagnosis from a patient so they can maintain good spirits. Billi’s parents plan to visit Nai Nai on the false pretenses of a wedding between one of Billi’s cousins and his girlfriend. Her parents ask her not to come for fear that she will reveal the diagnosis to Nai Nai. When Billi decides to visit Nai Nai and attend the wedding, she must decide between her family’s wishes and her moral compass, bringing conflicted thoughts on cultural belonging to the surface.

Touching, tender, and surprisingly funny, The Farewell is a genuine expression of emotion during a period of deep cynicism across the United States and at the box office. Despite the melancholy circumstances hanging over the plot and its characters, The Farewell is disarmingly warm. Unafraid to interrogate raw emotion and practically antique family baggage based on her own life, Wang asks the audience to inspect their own familial relationships and the tribalism that can splinter even the tightest-knit siblings.

As a familial rendition of a hangout movie, The Farewell clocks in just under 100 minutes. In a celebration of Chinese culture, The Farewell is also a food movie; entering the theater hungry is a recipe to find yourself at the nearest Chinese restaurant after the credits roll. Technically sound and well shot, The Farewell is a young director making the most of the talent around her. The soundtrack features original work as well as recognizable reimaginings, including a piece or two in Cantonese.

Relative-newcomer Awkwafina offers a solid lead performance in a stellar cast, including unbelievable performances from Ma, Lin, and Zhao, appearing in her first American film. The Farewell is a breakthrough film for Wang, a fresh new voice in auteur filmmaking.