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THE FAREWELL gets 7.5/10 The Last Goodbye


Directed by Lulu Wang

Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Haiyan Wang, Jian Wang

7.5/10

The ‘farewell’ of the title refers to the goodbye of goodbyes – the final visit to an elderly loved one who doesn’t have much time left. But The Farewell is not just a touching family comedy-drama, it’s an exploration of divisively different cultural customs regarding (oncoming) death.

Actress/rapper Awkwafina has made a name for herself through some easy-going roles in much bigger films, but her dramatic turn in The Farewell is certainly a revelation for her measured and appropriately revealing acting skills. She plays Billi, who’s devastated by the news her grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has lung cancer and may not live for more than another few months. But to add to this devastation is her learning that the family is keeping this information of health from the elderly woman herself, and they have contrived a wedding of Billi’s cousin as an excuse for them to visit her in China for what will be her final farewell.

It’s a character like Billi that adds more to this film – someone who has a clear duality depending on who she’s interacting with, whether it’s her fondness and appreciation of Nai Nai, or her defiant and moral scepticism that she relays to the rest of the family. As someone mostly born and raised in New York, she finds this tradition (that runs deep in the family) something to wrestle with. The film takes no sides, it simply listens to the conversation and arguments it presents on this troubling matter.

Maybe at times this elderly character doesn’t quite feel like a completely multi-dimensional character, as there’s plenty of well-intended and effective, but fairly hollow jokes about her oldness and the generational gap she shares with Billi. Nai Nai’s wholesomeness seems to be her only personality trait, despite how endearing it is.

The Farewell takes a serious look at a tradition that involves the most dramatic of all themes – death. Yet it still feels appropriately lighthearted and enjoyably comical without ever losing focus or diluting its own earnest intent. For such a lighthearted film, it’s appropriately coy about how conclusive it wants to be. Is there a pregnancy that is forcing the supposed lovebirds together in marriage? And more importantly, will Nai Nai ever discover the truth about her disease? Or perhaps she already knows, or highly suspects, her ensuing demise? This is one of the curious delights, among many simple delights, of this well-intended and well-accomplished film.

DAVID MORGAN-BROWN

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