Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma
Director: Lulu Wang
Running Time: 100 mins
The Farewell is an American film about a family who, upon hearing of their grandmother’s terminal diagnosis, return to their home in China, but decide not to tell her about her condition as the family prepares for a rushed wedding.
Heartfelt and wonderfully sensitive, The Farewell is absolutely an emotional watch, bringing together all the struggles and complexities of family loyalty, with the added spectre of cultural differences. It might not be quite the tearjerker it often aims to be, but The Farewell proves a thoroughly impressive film with its truly genuine emotion, wonderful performances and appropriate and refreshing doses of humour throughout.
The Farewell is a strong family drama, and there’s a lot of engrossing and intimate emotion at play on that side of the story. However, centring mainly around a woman with Chinese heritage but brought up in the USA, the film also brings about the issues that come with intercultural differences when put up against family loyalty, as we see the attitudes of those with a more ‘Eastern’ outlook on life clash with those with a more ‘Western’ mentality.
For me, that’s the most interesting part of the film, and the emotional turmoil that we see Awkwafina’s character go through as she wrestles with her own conscience in the face of her family’s collective decision-making is riveting and at times heart-wrenching.
But not only does that core theme and clash apply to the main character, because the small fractures and complications in the wider family are only made worse by the spectre of cultural differences. With Chinese and American cultures – perhaps the two proudest in the world – butting heads at a sensitive time, friction and arguments are bound to appear, and The Farewell does a great job at putting that international clash of mindsets into context with this family.
I will say that, being an American film, the assessment of the cultural differences is perhaps a little less interesting if you’re watching from a Chinese/East Asian perspective. If you’re watching with a more Western, individualistic mentality, then the dilemma and struggle over whether to stick to pure honesty and tell this woman of her ailments or not will hit home a lot harder.
Likewise, in its attempts to show off the differences between the two mindsets, there are times when The Farewell gives a rather superficial portrayal of some cultural elements. On the whole, it’s a very well-written film that approaches the subject well, but there are times when the Americans are portrayed a little too much on the hyper-emotional side, and the Chinese are shown off as a little too cold and stubborn. As I said, it’s a reality that plays out every day, but there’s a little more nuance to both sides of the argument that I felt was really missing here.
Away from the intercultural clashes, however, The Farewell also gives a riveting and importantly heartfelt account of the importance of family and loyalty. While portrayed in the context of those cultural differences, when the film really doubles down with its most intimate moments – particularly those shared by Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen as granddaughter and grandmother – the film’s heart shines through wonderfully, with a bittersweet sensation that highlights the strength of those family bonds despite the sadness of the present situation.
However, films that really give a genuine, heartfelt focus on the importance and strength and family are surprisingly few and far between nowadays – particularly in Hollywood – and that’s why The Farewell’s earnest and wonderfully emotional side is a real delight to see.
Overall, I was very impressed by The Farewell. A smart, complex and emotional drama that combines a riveting albeit imperfect account of intercultural clashes with earnest family drama, it’s a wonderful watch that really hits hard at times, even if it’s never quite as much of a tearjerker as you might expect, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.0.