Here at the Sundance Film Festival, there are many films and stories being told over the course of nearly two weeks and some of the films have already gained notoriety and attention, even in the days before their premiere.
Films like the new Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland, which presents an alleged exposé of Jackson’s interactions (and actions) with minors. It had so much attention that there was a police presence at its showing, with some protestors and crowds, and mental health professionals were on hand for those who decided to watch the four-hour presentation. Disturbing is a word that frequently came up in viewers’ and critics’ responses after they left the theater. Or Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, the Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron, which sold out long before tickets went on sale to the public.
But one of the films that have been talked about, although not as fervently or controversially, is The Farewell, which I had the honor and privilege of getting a ticket to before it, too, sold out.
The Farewell is the story of a Chinese family, focusing on daughter and grandaughter Billi (Awkwafina). Billi is a young woman who is still trying to figure her life out and has distant memories of her childhood in China, surrounded by family before she moved to New York with her parents. She has always kept in touch with her relatives and remains especially close with her grandmother, or nai nai (Shuzhen Zhou), in spite of the distance between them.
At the outset of the film, the audience learns that Billi’s grandmother has Stage IV lung cancer and everybody in the family knows about it except Nai nai. Instead of telling her, the family stages a fake wedding as an excuse to visit, traveling from the United States, Japan, and elsewhere in China. This is all done quickly for the doctors say that she doesn’t have long before she starts to decline. What follows is an extremely sweet and affectionate dedication to family, interspersed with sorrow, and we learn about what death can mean for those in the East, which is dealt with differently than it is in the United States and other western countries.
The Farewell is a joint American and Chinese project, but primarily Chinese, full of subtitles and the occasional spoken English. This is interesting because the writing is incredibly smart and quick-witted. Surprisingly, it isn’t Awkwafina with the funniest lines, as one might expect when going into this movie, but it is actually her on-screen mother (Diana Lin) and grandmother. Whether they were telling a joke or what they said was unintentionally funny, the audience responded. And, with few exceptions, these lines landed while being delivered in Mandarin.
Awkwafina, while she had her own humorous moments, was able to show off a more dramatic and somber character. Her performance was especially poignant after seeing her be over-the-top in Crazy Rich Asians and quirky in Ocean’s Eight last year. She demonstrates great skill here and it proves that Awkwafina has some range as an actor, and I look forward to what she will do next.
What really drove The Farewell home, however, was its ability to connect. All of us, at one time or another, have lost a close loved one. And, depending on the circumstances, that loss could’ve been long and drawn out or it could’ve been quick and unexpected. These events affect people differently in how they grieve and handle such loss.
Personally, I related to Billi in this film, and her relationship with her grandmother, as I also had a close relationship with my grandmother. In 2011, she started to get ill more frequently and it was only within a month or two that she passed. I had little chance to say my goodbyes and to see her again before she was gone, which are the same difficulties Billi had to deal with in The Farewell.
As sweet, and sad, as this movie is, it will still surprise you and it will tug at your emotions, in every direction. You will laugh and chuckle, tear up and cry. You will think about your own grandparents and extended family, and the memories and experiences you shared with them. If you get the chance to see The Farewell later this year, I implore you to take the time to see it, as it isn’t one that should be missed.