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The Farewell (2019) Review

Awkwafina is brilliant in a true life story that unpicks the inner turmoil of grief in way that is heartbreaking, honest, relatable!

by Ian Morton

The art of cinema is in its ability to transport you to another world. Exploring, learning from the past and experiencing someone else’s story are key elements of the medium, but so many films go by each year without even a passing thought to that which drives an audience back to the theatre time and time again. The Farewell is a film that thrives by telling a true story and connecting with the audience on such a visceral level that will stay with you for more than a couple of days. 

Divided in two between her family in China and her American homelife, the story follows Billi, an aspiring writer after discovering her Nai Nai – meaning grandmother – has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Upon learning of this, the family (Billi included) are summoned to China for one last time but under strict instructions not to tell the grandmother anything about her illness.

Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the story is inspired by her own experiences of being an immigrant and how her new and old cultures clash in the wake of a personal tragedy. Poignantly written, this a film that not only succeeds in bringing her experience to the screen but takes it one step further by finding a commonality between two worlds that you can both sympathise and empathise with.

Our main character, Billi (played by Awkwafina) is a stand in for the audience, a vessel for what is about to happen as differing cultural traditions clash, and those that feel familiar – in this case informing Nai Nai of her condition – quickly become alien when faced with the customs of other countries. Crafting the film in this way puts the audience in the shoes of Billi and takes you through the same motions as a result of two cultures pulling in very different directions.

Connecting us with Billi even more is the superb performance by Awkwafina in the lead role. Like a teenager experiencing death for the first time, the young actress wears her heart and emotions on her sleeve, burying them when face to face with her grandma but vomiting them at whoever will listen in hopes of finding a balance between traditions. It’s this confused expression of grief that is highly relatable, forcing the audience to submit to how she feels and ultimately engaging with the audience at its core.

What works the most however is just how intimate the film feels, from each performance through to how its shot. Every scene is lensed with such a gentle touch, that the most peculiar moments still feel real for those experiencing them. One scene in particular has the family visiting the grave of another relative, and while chaos ensues as the family pays homage to the dead, its handled in such a sensitive way, you end up succumbing to what is going on without batting an eyelid. 

If you’re someone who likes to explore new worlds at the cinema, then this is for you. If you’re someone who likes to be profoundly moved at the cinema, then this is for you. In fact, if you just like cinema, this is for you…just don’t forget to bring a tissue!


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