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Say hello to 'The Farewell,' one of 2019's best

Say hello to 'The Farewell,' one of 2019's best


One of the finest films of 2019 has sneaked into the Quad-Cities.

This gentle "PG"-rated movie is not an American film. It has subtitles. It has no action scenes or CGI. 

Regardless of your background, you will see your own family in “The Farewell,” a beautifully written and directed ensemble piece about a loving family bound together by a lie.

Set mostly in contemporary Changchun, China, the story is “based on an actual lie,” according to what we see on onscreen at the beginning.

The premise is simple: Billi (Awkwafina, “Crazy Rich Asians”) was born in China but has spent the last few years in New York. She is devastated to learn that her grandmother “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

The family, including Billi’s parents, have agreed not to tell her. They love her so much they want to take on the burden of knowing Nai Nai’s death is imminent.

Billi thinks it’s terrible that her family is keeping this secret. She barely can muster a smile when she flies to China on the pretense of attending her cousin’s wedding so she can see Nai Nai one last time.

Billi finds it difficult to be back in China. Her Chinese isn’t as good as she wishes it were, and she finds herself always at odds with her parents. She isn’t the only one who struggles with hiding her feelings, but she does everything she can to act happy during the preparations for the hastily arranged wedding.

Sometimes, director/screenwriter Lulu Wang’s story is incredibly moving. We can identify with Billi’s soon-to-come loss. But it’s also downright funny in several spots, including a scene at a loved one’s grave where family members argue over whether to leave him a cigarette and whether the banana they plan to leave should be peeled.

In another scene, the family forces a brief, inappropriate matchmaking interlude on a doctor and Billi.

Awkwafina is wonderfully engaging. The spark between her character and that of Shuzhen’s is almost tangible. I loved watching them glance at each other while other family members are around. Both these wonderful actresses are terrific in conveying that special friendship that sometimes springs up between a grandparent and grandchild.

I also loved the way the movie compares the Chinese and the American cultures. What, exactly, is a “good lie,” for example? Also, perspectives on death and “the right to know” are contrasted.

Go meet the family that will touch your heart … and make you think.


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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.

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