Review: 'The Farewell'

A Chinese-American movie that soars

The Farewell
August 9, 2019

In the woefully underrated 1984 comedy Unfaithfully Yours, Dudley Moore plays a concert pianist who resists a booking in China. His manager, played by Albert Brooks, explains why he's wrong: "What, shrugging off a whole continent? That's 800 million people. You get 200 million people to see you by mistake just because they're looking for a restaurant."

This is the genius of the $3 million arthouse picture called The Farewell, which has already made $8 million at the box office, shows no signs of slowing down, and will likely be the most successful independent film of 2019 when all is said and done.

The Farewell is an American movie—but one that largely takes place in China, in the city of Changchun, with dialogue mostly in Chinese. Every Chinese-American immigrant is going to want to see it, and there is no telling what might happen once it gets to China itself. Two hundred million people might see it just by mistake.

The Farewell is a story, alternately comic and rueful, about the psychic costs of immigration, the pain of intercontinental separation, and the ways in which the cultures of the East and West can and do clash. This is the first movie about the American-Chinese culture clash released since Crazy Rich Asians—and that big, broad romantic comedy made $175 million domestically last year. Crazy Rich Asians didn't succeed because of its Chinese themes, cast, and story, but its appeal to that relatively small but powerfully intense audience provided the crucial lift-off it needed.

The Farewell will never earn anywhere near what Crazy Rich Asians did, but then, it's a more challenging and idiosyncratic piece of work. That's why I think that, in its own way, it will turn out to be a more impressive box-office performer. Every Chinese immigrant in the United States—and his children—is going to hear about or already has heard about this movie. If they haven't seen it already, an astonishingly high proportion of the 3 million immigrants who have come here from China since the early 1980s are going to.

They should, and so should you. The Farewell is a lovely, lovely thing, at once intelligent and interesting, offering a rich portrait of a divided family, penetrating character studies of people as various as a bitter and failing Queens millennial named Billi and Nai Nai, her loving but tough-as-nails Chinese grandmother. When her family learns that Nai Nai has inoperable stage-4 lung cancer, the diagnosis is kept from her and her sons return to China for a hastily staged family wedding that provides an excuse to see her one last time.

The deception is so important to them that Billi's parents forbid her to come because they believe their Americanized child will be unable to restrain her emotions. Billi, played by the usually wild comedian Awkwafina in a revelatory turn, shows up anyway and proves up to the task of tricking her grandmother. But she cannot understand why she must do so, and neither do we. The explanation is both fascinating and powerful, and I won't ruin it for you.

All this makes The Farewell sound very dark, but it is actually a sharp and rueful comedy that culminates in a hilarious wedding scene that lasts 15 minutes and could have been twice as long. Writer-director Lulu Wang has an eye for the unforgettable detail you see just out of the corner of your eye before it vanishes, especially when it comes to the sights of the city of Changchun, whose history is being erased by rapid change just as Nai Nai and her kind are passing from the scene.

Like many an autobiographical filmmaker—Greta Gerwig comes to mind with her otherwise glorious Lady Bird—Wang does not know how or when to end her movie and so it kind of keeps going unnecessarily until it stops. But that inability to let go is also a mark of the directorial urgency that makes The Farewell such a memorable combination of plangency and wit. Look, 200 million Chinese on their way to a restaurant can't be wrong.

Published under: Movie Reviews