The Farewell review

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Now in cinemas is The Farewell – and our review is here.

The winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance London Film Festival, The Farewell marks the second directorial feature of filmmaker Lulu Wang. The film follows budding writer Billi (Awkwafina), who finds out her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is unknowingly suffering from terminal cancer. Hearing that her parents are planning to keep Nai Nai’s condition a secret, Billi travels to China to see her one last time.

The Farewell not only offers an emotive outlook on the cultural clashes between East and West, but also how they affect different generations among immigrant families. Although Billi’s mother, uncle and father (Wu Assassins’ Zhi Ma) have made their own lives outside of China, their attitudes retain a sense of tradition. This is reflected in their tense conversations with Billi, as they prioritise the family unit over brutal honesty. This discomfort increases the tension behind the delicate family reunion, with Shuzhen’s upbeat and blissfully ignorant Nai Nai unknowingly being the centre of attention. The fact that the rest of the family are reluctant to intervene indicates an unspoken, collective agreement of keeping quiet, which only worsens Billi’s emotional conflict. Her unfamiliarity with Chinese customs make her the most Western member of the family, so her feelings towards Nai Nai are dismissed. But this doesn’t diminish the strength of their relationship. Billi’s compassion to her grandmother shows through their sweet interactions, and when she receives news of a potential fellowship, Nai Nai is an unexpected source of support.

In comparison to her comedically brash performance in Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina’s restrained portrayal of Billi highlights her dramatic acting skills. She allows Wang’s simple dialogue to help build the character through emotivity rather than physicality, offering a poignancy behind Billi’s circumstances. In a simple scene with her uncle, Billi’s repeated replies hint her resigned silence towards the matter and quiet frustration in being unable to help or be honest. With the story based on Wang’s real-life grandmother, The Farewell not only celebrates established Asian actors but also elements of Chinese culture not widely seen by Western audiences. Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano beautifully captures a myriad of emotions that visually reminds us of the chaos that comes with family.

With Awkwafina’s commanding performance and Wang’s natural storytelling skills, The Farewell is a rare achievement that revels in its subtlety and heart.

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