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“The Farewell” is a heart-warming must-see

Updated: Jun 8, 2022


Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) shows her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) a breathing exercise that involves shouting outside of her apartment in Changchun, China.

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Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy; 2019; PG for thematic material, language, smoking; Streaming via Amazon PrimeVideo, Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Feature commentary by writer/director Lulu Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano

CHINESE writer/director Lulu Wang (“Posthumous”) was inspired to write the screenplay for “The Farewell” by events in her own life. The film is, to quote the introductory title card, “based on an actual lie.”

The story of “The Farewell” revolves around Billi (Nora Lum, a.k.a. “Awkwafina”), a young Chinese woman who has lived in the U.S. most of her life. When she learns that her beloved grandmother, known as Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given only weeks to live, Billi is devastated. Her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin), who also live in America, are planning to go to China to say goodbye to Nai Nai, but under false pretenses. Nai Nai will not be told of her condition. The extended family has devised a plan for all to meet at the wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend. The implication is that the wedding was originally planned for much later, but with Nai Nai’s prognosis, the couple agreed to move it up. More accustomed to the Western way of life, Billi is outraged by the deception, believing it’s unfair not to tell Nai Nai the truth. Despite her parents’ objections, Billi joins the family in China, where the rest of the film takes place.

(1) A painting hanging in the hospital where Nai Nai is having tests is the background for the title of the film. (2) Nai Nai prepares to have an MRI, which will reveal an advanced state of lung cancer. (3) Billi in her Brooklyn apartment sadly plans her trip to China, after getting a rejection letter for a Guggenheim Fellowship. (4) Billi's family's surprise when she shows up at Nai Nai's apartment in China.


Wang does a splendid job of combining humor and pathos in “The Farewell,” with wonderful, quirky attention to details she obviously knows intimately. All performances are natural and appealing, especially Awkwafina’s pitch-perfect interpretation of Billi. The film is a delight, and a lovely way to have a glimpse of life in today’s China which, with all its differences, proves that people everywhere have much in common.

The Lionsgate presentation on 4K (non-HDR) and Blu-ray are very good, with excellent detail and saturated colors. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also fine, with effects and music well-balanced, and dialogue always clear. Much of the film is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Extras include a couple of deleted scenes and two very interesting interviews – one with Wang, and the other with Awkwafina. The feature commentary is excellent, beginning with Wang’s admission that she never went to film school, but learned a lot about directing by listening to commentaries on DVDs.

Wang and Franquesa-Solano discuss the opening shot of a landscape painting hanging in the hospital where Nai Nai is having tests run. Wang notes that the painting is the first “lie” of the film, since it’s shown in close-up and could be mistaken for a real place. Wang points out that her great aunt plays a version of herself as “Little Nai Nai” in the film. Wang originally wanted her real grandmother to play Nai Nai, but she declined because she isn’t an actress and was self-conscious about her appearance. Franquesa-Solano explains the difference in lighting the scenes in New York and China: Billi’s Brooklyn apartment, for example, tended to be muted and dark; while the scenes in China are mostly brightly lit. Franquesa-Solano talks about how tiny the apartments in China are, and the difficulty of fitting camera and crew into the one where Nai Nai lives.

(1) The family plans Billi's cousin Hao Hao's wedding. (2) Nai Nai instructs Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his bride, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), as they pose for wedding photos. (3) A doctor continues the deception of Nai Nai, telling her she has the remnants of pneumonia, rather than stage four lung cancer. (4) Billi argues with the doctor (speaking in English), insisting it's unethical to lie about Nai Nai's diagnosis. 


Wang says she wanted to find the right balance between sadness and humor for the film, such as the scene at a spa where Billi gets “cupped”; or when the family visits her grandfather’s grave and there’s an argument about whether to leave cigarettes on it, with Billi’s uncle finally insisting, “Let the man smoke!” Wang describes how a banquet scene was shot, in which a huge lazy Susan laden with food slowly rotated in front of the guests. A hole was cut into the center of the table and that’s where the cameras were placed, while Wang directed from underneath the table. One of the final scenes, with Billi and her mother in the backseat of a taxi heading to the airport, had first been shot with dialogue between the two. But, while Wang notes she loved that conversation, she ultimately cut it. Franquesa-Solano says she agreed with that decision, because “the silence is so powerful.”

— Peggy Earle

(1) Billi's family visits her grandfather's grave, where Nai Nai requests his blessings. (2) At Hao Hao's wedding. (3) Hao Hao and Aiko perform a Japanese song at the reception. (4) A drunken Hao Hao weeps for his grandmother. (5) Posing for wedding photos. 


(1) The family gathers in Nai Nai's apartment after the wedding. (2) Nai Nai reads her test results, which have been altered to give her good news. (3) Nai Nai wishes Billi well, as they say, their goodbyes.





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