Experience beautiful culture: The Farewell

Aug 5, 2019

Saying goodbye is never easy, but it makes an interesting film.

One of the year's best: The Farewell

Grade: A

Director: Lulu Wang (Posthumous)

Screenplay: Wang

Cast: Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), Zhao Shuzhen

Rating: PG

Runtime: 1 hr 40 min

By: John DeSando

“Based on an actual lie.” From the titles

Lulu Wang writes/directs a quietly powerful drama about an Asian  tradition of withholding disturbing news like impending death that competes with the Western tradition of openness and disclosure. The Farewell is no imitation of the frothy Crazy Rich Asians.

Gone since she was three, Billi (Awkwafina) returns to China to visit her grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, the family refuses to tell her the grim news out of a  custom of restraining emotion and thereby  avoiding that discussion. Westernized Billi believes otherwise, and the film is pervaded by the overt and subtle struggle between her desire to give grandma a chance to say goodbye and her relatives’ desire to carry the emotional baggage themselves for Nai Nai.

While this may seem like a one note conflict, The Farewell is also a commentary on the strong family bonds of Asians, enviable when juxtaposed with the Western tradition of gritty individualism. For Asians, that individuals participate in the whole community is an attractive belief in times when the Western world is racked by factionalism and special interests.

Although the actors in The Farewell are not as glamorous as those in Crazy Rich Asians, their humanity and warmth are superior and their story more enriching. Whether or not to disclose a terminal condition to a sufferer touches every culture. It’s just that this exceptionally entertaining and instructive treatise on family unity  makes me even more certain that I love the Chinese.

Wang settles the debate-- to disclose or not to disclose--in a most satisfactory conclusion. To see The Farewell settle a thorny issue is to know you have experienced on of the best films of the year.

“You can’t hide your emotions.” (Billi’s parents tell her to stay away from the wedding)

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at