“You think ones life belongs to one’s self”…”In the East a person’s life is part of a whole.”
This idea is central to Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”, a personal meditation on saying goodbye and the perspective that it can bring. While the character Billi, played by Awkwafina, acts as our introduction to this story, she is just one part of the aforementioned “whole”. This film shows the effect that the news has on the family as a unit, utilizing wide framing with multiple members of the family in any given shot.
The casting was an obvious highlight for me. Zhao Shuzhen was absolutely magnetic as Nai Nai, the vibrant matriarch that represents most of the conflict in the film. Every casting choice felt deliberate and authentic and the entire ensemble really elevated the material. While Awkwafina and Shuzhen admittedly had the most involved roles, again this was about the family as a whole and I thought they really worked, but more importantly, they really worked Together.
This film represents one of the better arguments for cultural representation in films and, more specifically, among filmmakers. Lulu Wang brought so much personality and nuance to this project. A project that I think would’ve been just a safe, base-hit film from most other directors. The sad truth is that generally when films portray a different culture, and the filmmaker is not OF that culture, it is evident. They always feel like an academic portrayal of that tradition, there is a detachment to the material. This film has such a grasp on the details and let’s the characterization shine through during these sequences. This is what I enjoyed most about it.
After I saw the film I heard that it was based on an episode of a podcast, and to be frank it did feel like it. Within the the first 20 minutes of the film, the stakes are set and the main conflict is established. This wouldn’t bother me if there were revelations or if things really moved in a new direction, but it felt very one note from the perspective of plot. I know this was a true story so there are confines when telling that kind of narrative, but I do question the format of this film and the runtime. It did feel like a short film expanded to a feature. This feeling would rear its head during the less central character moments, some of the ancillary characters had some very generic characterization. They sometimes felt like family reunion stereotypes. I loved moments of this film but felt a tougher edit would have benefited it tremendously.
Regardless it is a singular film that I am very glad to have experienced. I think films and stories from a different cultural perspective deserve to be heard/seen and I hope to see many more in the future.