The Farewell stars Awkwafina as Billi a Chinese-American woman whose grandmother develops terminal lung cancer. Whilst Billi’s family decide not to tell her grandmother, they stage a family wedding in order to give everyone a chance to say farewell to her. The film is based on writer and director Lulu Wang’s own experiences with her family, declaring that the film is ‘based on a true lie’, and that heart really comes through in the film.
As a family drama it is incredibly touching, particularly the central relationship between Billi and her grandmother, known as Nei Nei. Awkwafina, who is known for her comedic supporting roles in films like Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, bring so much to the role of Billi. She brings such pain to the role, as someone who is devastated by the news about Nei Nei, and incredibly conflicted about the decision not to tell her. She is really a western audience’s way into the Chinese culture, as she spent most of her life growing up in America, and is more removed from Chinese customs than the rest of her family. And whilst this conflict leads to Awkwafina having some big emotional scenes that will stand out to many, her more consistently quiet performance throughout is every bit as moving.
Zhao Shuzhen plays Nei Nei, and stands out just as much as Awkwafina. She brings an incredible warmth and joy to Nei Nei, but is also a very strong matriarch figure. She drives a lot of the comedic moments in the film, as she throws a lot witty jokes and playful insults at many of her family members. And that comedy is beautifully balanced by Wang, knowing exactly when to let the emotional moments sit with you, and when to use a joke to add a little levity to the proceedings.
As well as being an exceptionally moving and very funny film, it also tells a poignant story about the meeting of two cultures. Given Billi’s American upbringing she finds herself at odds with the traditions of her chinese family, and see her having to come to terms with that is a really rich and interesting story, and the kind that we don’t normally see in Western cinema.