The Farewell is a story of anticipated loss. It tells the tale of a Chinese family that discovers their grandmother doesn’t have long to live. They collectively decide to withhold this truth from the grandmother and organize a rushed wedding as an excuse for the family to get together. The Chinese title of the movie, 别告诉她, literally translates to “Don’t Tell Her”.
The opening title card of the movie reads “Based on an actual lie” and director Lulu Wang’s own family did exactly what the family in the movie does. She detailed this story on an episode of popular podcast, “This American Life”. The episode received a large amount of attention and led to the film being produced. The opening title card has a way of subverting and poking fun at the cliche of many movies that begin with “based on a true story”. This tongue-in-cheek attitude is maintained throughout the movie.
Lulu Wang priorly made some short films, but The Farewell was her breakthrough and her confidence as a director is on full display. Directors will often over-use close-ups, but Wang uses them sparingly. In doing so, they become more impactful because of their infrequency. Wang didn’t just write and direct the movie. She also played piano on the film’s soundtrack. The movie features gorgeous cinematography and the performances are fantastic across the board.
The most notable performance is from the lead actor: the unique individual simply known as Awkwafina. She plays Billi, an Asian-American woman struggling with keeping the familial secret from her grandmother. While previously known as a primarily comedic actor, Awkwafina gets to show her range with this movie and delivers a truly heartbreaking, complicated, and multi-layered dramatic performance. She earned a Golden Globe award for Best Actress for this movie.
The Farewell earned the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature Film, and was nominated for the same award at the Golden Globes. Legendary Chinese actor Shuzhen Zhao, who plays the grandmother at the center of the story, earned a Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Acting itself is at the center of the story. Every character in the movie, except the grandmother, is acting the entire time. They are pretending that everything is normal, essentially serving as performers in the narrative of their collective lie. Some have breakdowns during the movie, the thin veneer of their performance breaking down and their true emotion and grief showing through.
The Farewell is a complex movie about family intricacies. While the grandmother’s impending death is the purpose of the family getting together, multiple issues rise to the surface. One of the main topics concerns immigration, and the feeling of straddling the line between two homelands.
Billi in particular feels this pull between two different cultures. She doesn’t understand why the family refuses to tell the grandmother how much time she has to live. Her uncle justifies their decision by saying “In the East, a person’s life is part of the whole”. The family believes they are saving the grandmother from stress and heartache by withholding the information.
The Farewell offers a moral quandary at its center. Is it ever justifiable to keep information from a person to spare them pain and suffering? Over the course of the movie, Billi confronts multiple characters about this topic. One of the doctors describes the family’s decision as “a good lie”. That raises another question. What constitutes a good lie, and who specifically is it good for?
The Farewell features a very specific story, and in doing so, it’s able to examine universal themes of suffering, grief, and connection. In examining death, it celebrates life and everything that brings it meaning. The Farewell is a tribute to familial love, and makes the argument that family makes life meaningful.
The Farewell can currently be streamed on Amazon Prime.