Sundance 2019: 'The Farewell' explores familial loss through comedy

film review

Lulu Wang's "The Farewell" premiered at Sundance Jan. 25.
Lulu Wang's "The Farewell" premiered at Sundance Jan. 25.

One conversation kept coming up during my weekend at Sundance, overheard while waiting in a press line or riding on the crowded bus.

“What else have you seen so far?”

“‘The Farewell.' And I really liked it.”

So I decided to wait in line for an hour and a half to get into a full-house screening of it. he dramedy by second-time director Lulu Wang, which features comedian Awkwafina, did not let me down.

Based on Wang's experiences with her own family, “The Farewell” tells the story of how the protagonist Billi’s family chooses to not tell her grandmother — the beloved family matriarch — that she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The family then fabricates a fake wedding to reunite the long-separated family members in China to say their goodbyes to Billi's grandmother. Billi, having been raised in America, feels that her grandmother has the right to know the state of her own health. Nevertheless, she participates in the lie so that she can fly to China to see her grandmother and experience her home country that she left long ago.

Wang is a master of details. She could have blown the film up to a crowded, chaotic comedy, but she kept it grounded in an indie genuineness and painstakingly directed each actor’s every gesture and facial expression to convey the right emotion at the right time. Her talent for depicting family dynamics manifests itself most clearly in group gatherings and family feasts. Individually, every character keeps their thoughts and feelings to themselves, but divulges anxiety and unfamiliarity with each other. In the big picture, this collective, seemingly-silly effort to uphold a white lie and the façade of familial harmony is soaked in veiled grief and loss, yet decorated by mundane, pleasant comic points that leave the audience chuckling through tears. And you can bet Awkwafina is a big reason for this effect.

The details of "The Farewell" are all too familiar to me. Greetings by commenting if you’ve gained weight or not, being told that you did gain weight but still having to accept additional servings of food at the dinner table. Debating if the moon is rounder in America than in China, being randomly and instantly paired up with the unmarried son of the friend of a friend of an unfamiliar relative. Feeling caught between an unearned homeland and an unclaimed foreign home. The movie can indeed be an encyclopedia of “subtle Asian traits.”

It also has the potential to connect with a broad audience through universal themes such as the loss of a loved one and the restraints and security of family. “The Farewell” is one of those films that sucks you in with a very specific scenario, envelops you in its own universe and sends you back into the real world with your eyes a little red and your heart a little warmer.


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