the farewell

review by tom fleming


The Farewell centres on a family dealing with grandmother (and family figurehead) Nai Nai’s (Zhao Shuzhen) cancer diagnosis. Rather than revealing to Nai Nai her condition, the family make the decision to hide her situation from her to avoid what they deem as unnecessary pain. This all comes as a struggle to protagonist Billi, the granddaughter of Nai Nai played by Awkwafina. For a self proclaimed ‘comedy-drama’, The Farewell fails to carry significant weight in either genre category. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t pleasure to be had from going to see it. 

As a result of the secrecy which requires the family members to hide their inner turmoil from Nai Nai, the film features only a limited range of selected emotional scenes. Unfortunately these scenes fail to truly emulate the painstaking journey of expecting eminent loss. This can be partially explained by the fact that the characters are actively seeking to ignore Nai Nai’s cancer and are not actually witnessing the emotional consequences on the sufferer. Nonetheless, where emotional scenes do come to prominence, the focus is at times misdirected, leaving their relevance to the plot unclear. 

Where The Farewell really blossoms though is through the acting and on-screen chemistry of Billi and Nai Nai.

The dilution of the real drama experience may also be attributed to the unsettled transitions between scenes. These, resultant from the varied camera work and largely disjointed soundtrack, throw the viewer from moments of frustration and anger to sudden sadness without a moment’s warning. I can only imagine that director Lulu Wang’s intention here was to project the same experience of compartmentalised emotion that the characters experience onto the audience also. Whether this is intentional or not, the viewer experiences more feelings of confusion than empathy for the characters (I questioned myself several times, wondering whether I missed something). 

The Farewell is far from a laugh out loud comedy but it does excel in moments of subtle humour. One cause of humour comes from a make-believe wedding arranged by the family in order to provide them all with a reason to see Nai Nai one last time. Here, the lack of sexual chemistry displayed between bride and groom is indicative of a high-school-like awkwardness and is thoroughly entertaining to watch. Elsewhere, the brutal honesty of Nai Nai herself who fires typical grandmother-like put-downs is undeniably funny. 

Where The Farewell really blossoms though is through the acting and on-screen chemistry of Billi and Nai Nai. In their rare but delightful scenes alone together, the two provide the audience with real moments of joy and the two really carry the film. While the plaudits will go to Awkwafina’s portrayal of a girl struggling with an emotional conflict, Zhao Shuzhen, in her film debut, is also excellent in her reflection of an outgoing, honest and thoroughly lovable grandmother. 

If you’re going to see The Farewell, don’t go in expecting a laugh out loud comedy, nor a hard hitting tear-jerker. Instead, what the film will provide you is a representation of family that audience members of all backgrounds will connect to. You may not laugh your head off or cry your eyes out, but after watching The Farewell you’ll almost certainly give your grandma a call. 

The Farewell will screen in the IFI until October 3rd.