Awkwafina plays Billi, an aspiring writer raised in the U.S. and the role based on Wang herself. To be honest, before last year’s Ocean’s 8 I’d never heard of Awkwafina, nor did she have much of a chance to stand out among that film’s bigger names. By contrast, THE FAREWELL reveals just how brightly she can shine in a leading role. There are plenty of moments which effortlessly show off Awkwafina’s charming side, particularly when Billi teases Nai Nai. However, I found her even more impressive when required to carry the script’s dramatic heft. Billi is the only one vehemently against keeping the diagnosis a secret but internalises this struggle; Awkwafina says more with pained facial expressions than other performers could with a weepy monologue. I’m a sucker for comedic actors flexing their dramatic muscles, and this performance is my favourite example since Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.
Although the supporting cast are all similarly excellent, I want to highlight the remarkable depth Zhao Shuzhen brings to her turn as Nai Nai. Shuzhen has clearly considered how Nai Nai’s obliviousness differs from outright naivete, making sure to convey her primary goal of looking after the family as she dives headfirst into wedding planning. Even when she briefly goes to the hospital due to her coughing fits, Nai Nai is focused on reassuring the family that she’ll be fine. Shuzhen also gets to deliver the most one-liners and does so with glee. For instance, watching Nai Nai exclaim “You’re not that skinny!” upon greeting Billi is funny in its relatability, but coupled with the scene’s subtext, it becomes delightfully wicked.
However, Wang’s achievements as writer and director make her the true breakout star of this film. Despite THE FAREWELL being just her second feature, Wang skilfully addresses the ethics at its core without every scene descending into a debate. Instead, the viewer is more often asked to consider what it means to come home, and what they would do for family. This is perfectly embodied by the clashing influences of Chinese and American culture on Billi, effectively becoming a fish out of water among her own relatives. Wang resists letting these conflicts collide until late in the film, when other characters finally cast Billi’s perspective on revealing the lie as the result of leaving China for so long. I’m not going to spoil the fallout of this moment, but it’s mesmerising.
The film pulls off a similar balancing act in its quick pivots between comedy and drama. An absurd drinking game scene at the wedding banquet is made to feel even more surreal by filming each actor in close-up and slow motion, only for Wang to abruptly cut to a minor character bursting into tears, once again in slow motion. I was initially confused by this choice, but since the film ended haven’t stopped thinking about the contrast. It’s also a showcase for THE FAREWELL’s consistently beautiful cinematography and use of sound. For the latter, composer Alex Weston favours powerful choral chants, a subtle yet clever reference to the central idea of strength through unity.
Simply put, THE FAREWELL is the best film I’ve seen in 2019 and I can’t imagine that changing. It’s an astonishingly well-realised portrait of Lulu Wang’s experiences that still manages to be an entertaining, relatable depiction of family. I was hooked from start to finish and can’t urge anyone reading this review strongly enough: You need to see this.