REVIEW: The Farewell Gets to the Heart of Being Asian-American

As much as I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, the treatment of the film as a triumph of representation gave me pause. Sure, an all-Asian cast in a Hollywood production is something to celebrate, but the characters are obscenely wealthy and the audience-surrogate is well on her way to become a one-percenter. In short, they are hard to relate.

The infinitely more modest The Farewell is more successful at bring the Asian-American experience to the big screen. Not only that, it transcends culture clash shenanigans to depict the very real melancholy that accompanies immigrants through their entire lives. Trust me, I know.

There is a connecting vessel between Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell: Awkwafina. The rapper-turned-actor who played Constance Wu’s best friend in CRA delivers a compelling dramatic performance as Billi, a burnt-out millennial with more debts than prospects.

Just as she discovers she has been turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship, Billi is informed her Nai Nai (grandmother in Mandarin) has terminal cancer. Not only that, the family has decided to keep the diagnosis from her, certain the news could further reduce grandma’s life expectancy (this is not unusual). Considering the clan is not very upfront to start with, keeping a secret of this magnitude is not all that challenging.

In order to justify the arrival of the entire family to Changchun for a final goodbye, a shotgun wedding is concocted. Since Billi is known for her inability to keep a poker face, she’s not even invited, but shows up anyway. Her intention to drop truth-bombs during the proceedings is met with her family’s staunch opposition and her grandmother’s blissful obliviousness.

Even though the notion of keeping a diagnosis from a patient feels straight-up unethical to many of us, The Farewell makes a solid case for this approach (at the very least, it’s believable). It goes beyond the placebo effect: Speaking the truth is only beneficial to one person, the truthteller; silence benefits the entire family, already dealing with taxing circumstances.

The fact the one who wants to blow the lid on the whole scheme is the most American of the bunch is not lost on anyone: Individual vs. community represents the dichotomy between Western and Eastern civilizations, at least in this movie. A product of both worlds, Billi —who lives a mostly isolated life in New York— comes to regret not being a part of something bigger than herself.

While The Farewell is humane and relatable (based on real events), writer/director Lulu Wang (Posthumous) seems at odds with camera technique and narrative structure. Rather than let a scene breathe, Wang would throw a cut for good measure, like a laidback Michael Bay. More problematic are the dramatic shortcomings: There is a subplot with potential —the grandson and his Japanese girlfriend, compelled by circumstances beyond their control to get married— that goes entirely unexplored. I’m positive I’m not the only one curious about their acquiescence to participate in this charade.

A dinner scene enables some political talk, not the usual bickering about underwhelming leaders, but the wisdom of sticking to one’s country vs. exploring a better future abroad. The Farewell reminds us that callous statements of the “go back to wherever you came from” nature are not only racist but demonstrate a pernicious lack of empathy. Nobody leaves home without a good reason. 3/5 prairie dogs.

The Farewell opens this Friday 9th at Studio 7.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.