One of the first rules of screenwriting is “write what you know,” but basing a movie on your own life can be harder than it sounds. Real-life experiences don’t always lend themselves to cinematic structure. What if you need to cut out a character to tighten up the narrative? You’d be deleting your beloved Aunt Betsy! Therein lies the problem: filmmakers have to walk a line between authentically expressing their past and shaping a movie for audience consumption. With The Farewell, writer/director Lulu Wang accomplishes this fairly well.
When Wang’s grandmother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, word quickly spread throughout the family, reaching everybody but the grandmother herself. This is a notably common practice in Chinese culture: lying to someone about their own terminal illness is meant to shield them from anxiety, and even medical professionals will join in on the deception. In order to see their family figurehead one last time, the Wang family reunited in Changchun under false pretenses, making sure to keep the grandmother’s cancer a secret from her. Lulu—depicted here as “Billi”—was uneasy with the ruse. The Farewell chronicles the family reunion from her perspective.
The subjects of loss and grief are intrinsic to the movie’s story, but they don’t hit as hard as they might have in real life, partly because of The Farewell’s devotion to sticking to the events as they happened. Aside from a brief phone call at the beginning, we don’t see Billi and her grandmother’s relationship before the cancer diagnosis—which means that Billi is repressing her true feelings during every interaction between them. It’s hard to invest in a bond between two characters when we only see a false version of it. As a result, the central dynamic of The Farewell is kept at an emotional remove. Its impact relies on the viewer filling in the blanks with their own experiences, if applicable.
The lead actors of the family ensemble have clearly drawn from their own connections, as they strengthen the movie’s emotional tenor despite its structural problem. Awkwafina conveys a great deal of hurt through body language alone; Shuzhen Zhao exudes tangible, grandmotherly warmth; and Han Chen—portraying Billi’s cousin Haohao—does a fantastic job of nearly spilling his sadness over the brim. Wang’s screenplay plumbs the depths of seemingly shallow moments in search of meaning, and even if it’s difficult to feel attached to her characters, the cast ensures that humanity and empathy are replete in the smallest interactions.
The Farewell also touches on the immigrant’s internal culture divide, sometimes through carefully considered dialogue, sometimes through difficult to decipher symbols. The questions raised are worth dissecting, but the movie raises them just to keep them suspended, preferring to focus more on unfolding the family drama. Wang is under no obligation to investigate these cultural issues further, but even in flashes she demonstrates a nuanced perspective on them—the thematic sketch promises an amazing painting. The movie feels like that overall as well. It’s emotional, but not deeply felt; it’s thoughtful, but not always thought-provoking. The Farewell is a good thing that’ll leave you wanting more.