One of the most buzzed-about titles to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is truly a sight to behold. Hilarious and heartwarming (often at the same time), this is the type of personal but still highly entertaining movie that we don’t see nearly enough in the multiplexes anymore.
This film’s story is inspired by the life of the writer-director, and as a result, it feels both extremely personal and very realistic. Although it would have been easy for a movie like this to feel overly sentimental or even sappy, Wang manages to make the film feel subdued and natural. That isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have emotional moments — the film is very resonant — it just isn’t the tear-jerker that it sounds like it would be on paper.
The movie also evaluates some very interesting things. Although the idea of hiding a terminal diagnosis from someone may seem entirely unethical to us as Americans, different cultures approach death in different ways, and this is discussed and explored many times over the course of the film. The most interesting parts of the movie are those in which the protagonist is trying to understand her identity, as the culture of her family and the culture in which she spent most of her life contrast drastically.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is how hilarious it is. The laughs are very consistent from beginning to end, with only a few breaks when the movie takes a slightly more somber turn. However, even during some of the more emotional moments in the film, there is a sense of dark humor that radiates throughout. One of the funniest moments in the movie features the family participating in a traditional ceremony whilst being nagged by the matriarch of the family.
A significant part of the reason why this film works so well is that the character development is excellent. Obviously, Wang has a connection to the story, and it shows, but even beyond that, the movie is extremely impressive. For a film with such a large ensemble, it is shocking that all of the characters feel fully-developed. Even some of the supporting characters who have few to no lines feel fully developed.
Additionally, the cast does an amazing job of bringing these characters to life. Until this point, Awkwafina has been predominantly known for being a comedic side character. In The Farewell, she gets to prove her chops, showing that she is a legitimate force with which to be reckoned. Her performance is packed with emotion, especially during the handful of powerful monologues she has.
The supporting cast is phenomenal too, featuring mostly international actors and actresses. Tzi Ma, who plays the protagonist’s father, is the only other performer who is likely known to American audiences, and he does an excellent job in his role. His father-daughter chemistry with Awkwafina is great, their scenes together being standouts in the movie. Another notable performance comes from Zhao Shuzhen, who plays Nai Nai (the protagonist’s grandmother), in an absolutely adorable way.
Furthermore, the film is astoundingly artistic for a movie this small-scale. The visuals are truly gorgeous. It is highly unusual for a film based in comedy to have such wonderful cinematography, but Wang is extremely ambitious with her vision, delivering a movie that is not only beautifully-written but also stunning to look at. There are a handful of shots in the film that will leave you awe-struck. The score by Alex Weston is just as magnificent as the visuals as well, based in somewhat somber but still elegant and appealing tones.
Although it may not be the most revolutionary movie you will see this year, The Farewell is an all-around great film that really doesn’t have anything wrong with it. The only obstacle that may hold it back from achieving the success it deserves is that it is mostly in Mandarin, but if you are subtitle-adverse, still give this a shot — you won’t regret it.
The Farewell is now playing in select theaters.