Synopsis: A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.
Stars: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Ines Laimins, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo
Director: Lulu Wang
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: In recent years, I’ve come to be mighty skeptical of any movie that has buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival. Though the fest has produced several hits throughout its time, lately its been more infamous as a birthing place where great, good, and so-so movies without distributors get gobbled up by studios who then don’t know what to do with them. The great ones see their releases totally bungled, the good ones rarely find a wide-release, and the so-so ones usually get the most eyes on them. Thankfully, most of the just plain bad ones disappear quickly into your streaming service library.
This year the two movies that I heard the most about were female-led and female directed. The first to arrive was the moderately well-reviewed comedy Late Night, starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Though it was positioned well by Amazon Studios as counter-programming to the summer blockbusters that were in full swing when its June release date rolled around, it tanked. Big time. So big that its rumored jobs were lost at Amazon Studios and a complete revaluation of their film acquisition policies in progress. As much as I would have liked to see that film do better business considering the stars, I kind of get why it didn’t catch on. Though it had laughs, I didn’t leave the theater wanting to tell my friends about it.
The same can’t be said about the other Sundance favorite now arriving in theaters. I’m telling all my friends, family, co-workers, and even a few people off the street that look like they’d be up for it about The Farewell. Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical dramedy is the absolute most winning film I’ve seen all year, equal parts comedy and drama and never less than 100% authentic in its emotions. It’s a film that starts strong and just continues to build and take root in your heart over the next hour and a half. If a PG rated film like this can’t get families (with older children) into the theater and be a sleeper hit of the summer, then nothing can.
While waiting to see if her grant proposal is approved, a thirty-year-old struggling writer in New York City arrives at her immigrant parents house to do, what else?, her laundry. It’s here Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) learns her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of terminal lung cancer. Her father (Tzi Ma, Skyscraper) is grief-stricken while her mother (Diana Lin) explains to Billi that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis but instead will gather in China to say their goodbyes under the pretense of a shotgun wedding for Billi’s cousin. What’s more, Billi can’t come along because she won’t be able to keep the secret. Recognizing this will be her only chance to say goodbye, Billi makes her way to China several days after her parents, surprising them and threatening to upend the plan.
Over the course of the multi-day wedding celebration, Billi gets an education about China’s cultural complexities of withholding a terminal diagnosis from a loved one and how it’s not just about “lying” but about showing respect for their final days. Additionally, she finds a greater understanding of her parents difficult immigration to America and grapples with the ripple effects it had on her upbringing. While Nai Nai stresses over crab being served at the wedding instead of lobster, her family is agonizing over making sure she doesn’t accidently see her test results and finding a way to say good-bye without actually saying it. As the family participates in numerous traditions leading up to the big day, we get a small insider view of Chinese culture and, while certainly not comprehensive, it’s valuable to be a fly on the wall for many of these celebrations, discussions, and remembrances.
Though it sounds like the makings of a dreary, teary film (and trust me, there are tears), Wang’s film is overflowing with life and demonstrates an assured way with comedy as well, drawing laughs from unlikely places and characters. Much of the comedy comes from the differences between cultures and customs but there’s a fair share of one-liners that are howlinginly funny. Family reunions are stressful enough and with emotions dialed up, everyone is on edge and that leads to a number of funny sequences and some especially awkward wedding speeches. All of the moments feel unexpected and off-the cuff, never straying into the saccharine areas we think they’re going to go and which they maybe might have the tendency to lean.
Known for her stand-up and previous comedic roles, Awkwafina does, if not a complete 180, then a 165 degree turn as Billi. Finding a way into the comedy without being the center of it, she also doesn’t grit her teeth to get into the drama of the film either. This feels like an actress taking on another role and knocking it out of the park, not simply a comedian stretching outside her comfort zone and achieving an unexpected bullseye. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are wonderful as her parents, both getting key scenes with their daughter that tell us much about their life and love for their family, with Lin specifically tackling a difficult arc accepting responsibilities for how she raised Billi. The real standout here is Zhao Shuzhen in a performance that has Best Supporting Actress (or at least a nomination written all over it). Warm, wise, and always with a twinkle in her eye, each frame of film she’s in is enriched by her presence and each line of dialogue is of sage import. It’s fairly unforgettable, as is her final scene.
Sure to be the best film to come out of the lackluster summer of 2019 and absolutely the one of the top movies of the year, The Farewell is a real treasure to be treasured. I haven’t stopped thinking about it nearly a week after I’ve seen it, nor can I stop telling people how good it is. Opening in limited release before expanding wider, this is one to keep your eyes open for because I have the feeling this is the “little film that could” hit everyone has been waiting for.