Home » The Farewell review – An Overwhelming Sledgehammer of a Film | Sundance London 2019

The Farewell review – An Overwhelming Sledgehammer of a Film | Sundance London 2019

by Ben Rolph

Based on an actual lie, The Farewell is an overwhelming tragicomedy that hits you with a sledgehammer punch of emotions. This film is intensely personal for the director, Lulu Wang – filming took place in her own Grandmother’s town, Changchun in China. It is truly bittersweet, scattered with a slew of hysterical moments and contrasting heartfelt raw emotional scenes shared around perfectly.

The film is centred around a Chinese family, which for me is intensely personal as for everytime Nai Nai spoke or moved, I was reminded of my own Chinese family, namely my granddad. Not due to them being just Chinese, but for the actions and subtleties only a Chinese family would know about. The large-overwhelming gatherings, the food, the Ang Pow’s, the cheekiness in language are all so familar, it is all too real and devastating that it sweeps you to your feet.


A Chinese family discover that their grandmother has only a short time left to live, and instead of telling her, they create a fake wedding to gather the family together for one last time. Billi (Awkwafina) is second-generation Chinese, a young Chinese-American with great aspirations, although seperated, Billi’s bond with her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzen) remains strong. Billi’s tamely-alcoholic father (Tzi Ma) Haiyan and emotionless mother Jian (Diana Lin) set their sights for China to have one last visit.

Nai Nai’s dreamy ignorance is utterly charming and blissfully perfect, this sense of innocence compels and evokes strong pity. Her innocence is almost child-like, the Chinese nuances are seen in actions, activities and language, for instance “stupid child” is a term of affection. Wang has a constant control, this allows for the creation of a family dynamic of eclectic characters. The direction is startlingly masterful, with a consistent authority in framing that allows for a calculatedly beautiful film.


The juxtaposition of the busy New York streets to the modernised Changchun builds a sense of home, an intimacy that connects you to Nai Nai (and China) and this makes the separation near the end infinitely more tragic. I sobbed and uncontrollably cried as when tragedy struck, it was all too familiar and overpowering.

The reality and creation of this life-like family dynamic grants the film space to explore a spectrum of grief, showing a review of how tragedy is dealt with, individual to individual. The emotional spectrum of grief seen in most films is narrow, some would argue it’s almost inherent in Hollywood’s traditional nature. The Farewell examines and handles grief in a refreshingly new way, a real way. Not everyone is the same; some may burst into tears, some may stay quiet, some move on as they can do no else. It is Wang’s masterful control that allows for expression in the film’s different slices of melancholy.


As the family’s cancer-stricken grandmother, Zhou Shuzen is irresistibly wondrous. She’s caring, fiery and playful. Her dynamic as the family leader is perfect and is helpfully portrayed visually with a strong sense of intimacy. Shuzen portraying such real-insistence and naive innocence is an example of perfect characterisation.

Seen through the eyes of Billi, there is a semi-autobiographical element that relates to Wang’s place as second-generation Chinese. The fluency of Chinese Mandarin to English symbolises the never-dying connection from generation to generation, a similar line is perfectly straddled in the balance of comedy and tragedy.

The Farewell is an overpowering tragicomedy that broke me. It is a richly authentic, irresistibly charming and beautifully directed film.

5/5 Stars ★★★★★

Ben Rolph



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