The Farewell (4 stars)

The Farewell

Sundance London 2019: Grief and culture clashes power this heartfelt comedy drama from Lulu Wang

The family comedy is given a poignant new twist in Lulu Wang's deeply personal tale of grief and cultural clashes, inspired by her Chinese grandmother's diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer in 2013. It's a subject that Wang talked about on an episode of This American Life titled 'In Defense of Ignorance', after the family took the decision to hide the terminal illness from the patient herself and gather together under the guise of a wedding in China to say goodbye.

Apparently a common practice in China, this elaborate lie did not sit right with Wang, and the film explores her moral dilemma by presenting different sides of the argument through jovial and emotional exchanges, all served up over mouth-watering meals and grand family gatherings. Operating on multiple levels, The Farewell really resonates when it comes to the overwhelming experience of returning to the motherland, with lingering shots of changing neighbourhoods, and childhood memories floating to the surface.

Rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina turns in a hugely affecting dramatic performance, after her comedic turns in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's Eight. She rolls with the punches in the lead role of Billi, who adores her Nai Nai (an effervescent Shuzhen Zhao). Whether they are talking on the phone or bonding over tai chi, their heartening interactions ring completely true, even if they spend their time shielding one another from uncomfortable secrets and telling little white lies.

The ensemble all do excellent work as the fragile family members acting out and not knowing what to do, or how to manage their inner turmoil. It's all intuitively handled by Wang, who nails the chaos and unspoken intimacy of relatives bonding over shared sorrow. The affection and complexity of this familial unit colours every candid exchange, coping mechanism, karaoke number and drunken speech, resulting in a bittersweet portrait of undying love.

Screening as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2019: London. General release TBC.

The Farewell

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 38min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Lulu Wang
  • Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhao

When a Chinese grandmother gets terminal cancer, the family is torn between hiding the diagnosis from the patient or telling her. Poignant and deeply personal family comedy from Wang, with a hugely affecting performance from rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina as Billi, who adores her Nai Nai (Zhao, effervescent). A…