In the USA, Lulu became Wangs THE FAREWELL into a surprise indie hit. Now the tragicomedy, based “on a true lie”, is daring to enter cinemas in competition with “Star Wars” and could have a similar triumph in this country. We reveal more about this in our review.
The family clan: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chan Han, Aoi Mizuhara and Li Xiang.
The plot summary
When Billi (Awkwafina), who grew up in New York, learns from her parents that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) only has a short time left to live in China, her life turns upside down. The family decides to keep Nai Nai in the dark and hide the fatal illness from her. A wedding is spontaneously organized for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen), with the sole purpose of bringing the family, who are scattered abroad, together one last time. As Billi tries to maintain the family lie while navigating the constant minefield of family expectations, she encounters things that change her own life. This offers the chance to rediscover both the land of her childhood and the wondrous spirit of her grandmother.
In the United States, the US-Chinese co-production “The Farewell” was a huge surprise hit. And really. The indie tragicomedy directed by Lulu Wang (“The Art of Loving”) started its triumphant march in just four cinemas. With an average of just under $90,000 in revenue per theater, “The Farewell” even brought the super-blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame,” which was released at the same time , to its knees and set the record for the “best theatrical release per cinema” in 2019. For comparison: The Marvel hit brought in just $77,000 per cinema. The $3 million production has now grossed almost $20 million and was shown in 816 U.S. theaters in its strongest week. The critics also joined in with this hymn of praise reflected in cinema tickets: “The Farewell” currently has an average to positive rating average of 99 percent among professional reviewers on the review collection platform Rotten Tomatoes, and 87 percent positive among viewers. The story, based on a true fate, about a Chinese family that keeps their cancer secret to protect the family matriarch, is demonstrably popular across all target groups. However, it is difficult to estimate whether this will also be the case here.
Billi (Awkwafina) and her family want to secretly say goodbye to their cancer-stricken grandmother.
“The Farewell” begins with the text panel “after a true lie,” which in its contradiction sums up the tone of the following 100 minutes very harmoniously. Lulu Wang essentially tells a deeply sad story, but presents it to the viewer in such an absurd dimension that at times you can’t help but laugh out loud. In China, it is actually common practice not to tell close relatives about possible cancer, as it is assumed that patients with such a diagnosis would not die from the tumor, but from fear of impending death. And so the family of Billi, who has been chosen as the protagonist, resorts to drastic measures to gather its scattered members around one table again to say a secret farewell to grandmother Nai Nai. A wedding situation is even faked for this purpose (after all, you have to justify the family get-together somehow). This situation alone results in some wonderfully bizarre moments, as the supposed bride and groom are actually not ready to exchange vows this weekend. The incredulous look on the face of the alleged groom, Hao Hao, speaks volumes every time he has to justify his quick wedding to the girlfriend he just met in front of the entire team. A very likeable running gag that is credibly rooted in reality.
The humor in “The Farewell” is found primarily in the details. On the whole, however, the film is based on quiet drama, which is particularly credibly performed by Awkwafina, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role. We experience the story primarily from their perspective – and therefore primarily the struggle with the situation. In this way, director and author Lulu Wang specifically questions the (Chinese) tradition and also to what extent one can put the well-being of the community above the well-being of the individual or vice versa. Wang also repeatedly opens up individual levels of discussion about China and Chinese politics on the sidelines of her film, but never expands them so much that the actual (family) story about it falls into the background. An understandable decision, after all, Wang is talking about her own fate here, although of course this also deprives her story of the opportunity to advance into larger narrative dimensions. Especially in the second half, “The Farewell” settles into a feel-good level that is largely free of rough edges, to which the overlays about Nai Nai’s real fate also contribute. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for the film’s tremendous success in the USA.
The protagonist Awkwafina, who is currently celebrating a similar triumph to the film itself (“Ocean’s 8”) After various smaller supporting roles, he finally has the opportunity to play in a big way. The New Yorker native expresses her emotional conflict excellently with great sensitivity and without any grand gestures. She combines both genre influences when she acts brilliantly funny at the same moment and yet lets it appear to those in the know that she is actually deeply sad. Particularly when paired with Shuzhen Zhao, who is making her debut here as the grandmother, Awkwafina really shines and manages to constantly stand out from the crowd in a film with a huge ensemble without deliberately playing herself into the foreground. This fits in with the very reserved direction, which – especially for a Chinese film – impresses with the consistent omission of kitsch or other over-dramatization. This is exactly why “The Farewell” threatens to drift into a certain monotony here and there. When directing, Lulu Wang focuses primarily on silent contemplation. She often simply leaves dialogue scenes for minutes, even if the content of what is being said has little relevance to the actual plot. This gives the viewer a genuine insight into an extended Chinese family in a state of emergency, but it’s hard to blame anyone who finds that not enough.
Conclusion: The audience favorite “The Farewell” impresses with a finely coordinated mix of comedy and drama, in which the main actress Awkwafina in particular can shine. As a viewer, however, you have to get used to her directing, which is always more observing than actively driving the action forward. Otherwise the action just babbles along for an hour and a half.
“The Farewell” can be seen in selected USA cinemas from December 19th.