The Farewell




Lulu Wang’s true story of the love between a grandmother and her granddaughter is delivered with affection, levity and wit. 

Farewell, The

The generation game: Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen


The Farewell is based on an actual lie. A good lie, perhaps, but then mild dishonesty ripples through the lifeblood of this film in a natural, impish way. Billi’s grandmother in Changchun has been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer and is given three months to live. Billi (Awkwafina), who moved from China to the US as a child, still harbours a deep affection for her grandmother, Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), and is determined to see her one last time. But nobody will tell Nai-Nai that she is dying, as they feel that it will only hasten her end. Indeed, it’s something of a tradition in China to mislead the moribund. So the family descends on Changchun from far and wide to pay their respects, in the pretext of attending the wedding of Billi’s cousin, the gormless Hao Hao (Chen Han), to his young Japanese bride, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Revived by so much family around her, Nai-Nai sets about stage-managing a magnificent wedding and will brook no restraint.


The film opens with a visual lie as we gaze at a magnificent landscape, which turns out to be a large picture hanging on the wall of a Changchun hospital. Nai-Nai is waiting to have an MRI scan and is on the phone to Billi in Brooklyn. Nai-Nai tells her that she is at a friend’s house and hopes that Billi is keeping warm and wearing a hat. Billi lies back, telling her that she is. But Billi resents the bigger deceit and is determined to make it to Changchun to spend some final quality time with her grandmother. As Billi, Awkwafina won the Golden Globe for her performance, but it is Zhao Shuzhen as Nai-Nai who brings a real sparkle to the film, cementing both its wisdom and humanity.


On so many levels, The Farewell is an uncommon beast. It is an American film in Mandarin with English subtitles. Its cast of characters is largely female and its director, scenarist and cinematographer are also women. Its star is a rapper-cum-actress who has never had the lead in a film before. And one of the lead characters, Lu Hong, plays herself. The film is about deception, but it’s also about family, the bond between young and old and about the divide and bridge between East and West. In China, we are told, it is easier to make one’s fortune, but in America there are more opportunities. In America you can still find trust and generosity, but in China roast duck will always be more delicious. However, most unusual of all, The Farewell is essentially about the relationship of a grandmother and her granddaughter. Without an iota of sentimentality – this is no Terms of Endearment – the director Lulu Wang pulls the viewer in with enormous warmth, a nimble wit and keen observation. Perhaps the hardest part for Wang was to keep the secret from her grandmother, who liked to visit the Changchun set to check on the film’s progress.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Zhang Jing, Li Xiang, Yang Xuejian, Jim Liu.
Dir Lulu Wang, Pro Daniele Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang and Anita Gou, Screenplay Lulu Wang, Ph Anna Franquesa Solano, Pro Des Yong Ok Lee, Ed Matt Friedman and Michael Taylor, Music Alex Weston, Costumes Vanessa Porter and Athena Wang.
Ray Productions/Big Beach/Depth of Field/Kindred Spirit-Entertainment Film Dists.
100 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 20 September 2019. Cert. PG.