The Farewell is an excellently written, poignant drama that expertly ties together the difficulties of cultural differences with family complications. The movie is beautifully transparent and offers an honest look into the dynamic of a Chinese family. With splendid performances by the cast, namely Awkwafina as Billi Wang and Zhao Shu-zhen as Nai Nai (Billi’s grandmother), the movie feels incredibly authentic and does a great job at representing the culture. It’s a universal story with incredibly moving sentiment that is sure to resonate with many. For those of you that don’t know, this film is based on director Lulu Wang’s real life experience.

The Wang family staring at Nai Nai after she received her "altered" doctor's report.

Everything about this movie builds right from the beginning. Shortly into the film, the audience is immediately let in on a little family secret – Billi’s grandmother is dying from stage IV lung cancer and is predicted to only have several months to live. While this is already enough information to create an emotional story, you will be shocked to discover the entire family knows but refuses to tell her out of traditional Chinese beliefs. Throughout the movie, I was continuously wrestling my own personal beliefs against theirs; I couldn’t help but think “what’s the right thing to do here?”. I’ll warn you right now, this isn’t the kind of film that lets you sit back and relax – it’s the kind that makes you think deeply about what you would do in the given situation.

By giving the audience this knowledge about Nai Nai so early on, it created a lasting tension that stayed until the end of the movie. As I continued to watch, I realized I was filled with this unforgiving dread for what I knew was eventually going to happen. I felt scared to reach the ending even. Was someone going to cave and spill the whole truth? Would it have been the wrong thing to do? I started feeling nervous about how this movie was going to unravel. While it was an uncomfortable and at times, frustrating experience, I loved the depth that this added – behind every conversation and interaction was a hidden pain that we got to feel alongside the family.

Billi and Nai Nai at the dinner table.

In disclosing this information to us, Wang basically sets us up to feel like we’re part of Billi’s family; we’re in on the secret and we share the discomfort of having to carry it. I personally found it easy to connect with Billi’s Asian-American ideals of independence and freedom, so I sided with her belief that Nai Nai deserved to be told of her condition. “This is wrong” and “they really need to tell her” were two thoughts that constantly floated around my mind.

But what this film does so brilliantly, is that despite how strongly we may feel towards what we should do, it remains unclear what is the right thing to do. The Farewell forcibly throws you into the customs of Chinese culture and teaches you how their ideals focus on people as a collective rather than as an individual. In keeping the secret from Nai Nai, the thinking was that the family would be able to carry the heavy burden for her. Although I myself am unfamiliar with this practice, who am I to argue against their culture? It’s this conflict between Western and Eastern ideals that makes this movie so thought-provoking.

Billi and Nai Nai hugging as Billi prepares to leave China to head home for America.

One of my favourite aspects of this movie was how genuinely real the depiction of Billi’s family was. As a Chinese-Canadian, their dynamic felt so familiar to me. How they talked, what they said, how they interacted, I can assure you it’s all very realistic. I also really appreciated that the family’s strong connection and care for one another was clearly shown because I feel Chinese families are often stereotyped as unaffectionate (that’s completely false). I loved all the subtleties (like how the family members kept putting food on each other’s plate during dinner) that show how affection is shown more through actions than words in this culture.

And it was interesting to see how each of the family members reacted and coped with the news. It’s clear that everyone loved Nai Nai and were saddened by the diagnosis, but it wasn’t always easy to tell given their behaviour. While Billi’s world was immediately shattered upon discovery, it took most of the others a while before the realization hit them. Seeing Hao Hao cry during his wedding and Haibin break down during his speech felt like the breaking point for everyone; it was like the culmination of all their fear and guilt finally spilled out. Those moments were intense and incredibly raw, but also beautiful and earnest.

The Wang family leaving the hospital.

I do want to take a quick moment to compliment Lulu Wang’s directing though. I haven’t seen any of her other works, but The Farewell was just so shockingly good. I loved the direction she took with this film and how she was able to blend lighthearted humour with the heaviness of the topic. Not only was the writing superb, I felt every camera shot was beautifully done as well. Wang was able to capture all the right angles that perfectly encapsulated the characters’ emotions in a scene. There was no hiding in this movie; every tear, every anxious breath, every nervous laughter, was put on display.

There wasn’t a single scene that felt like it didn’t have a significant purpose to the overall story, and I especially appreciated the exceptionally raw moments that explored how deeply culture impacts us. The movie had an intimate feel to it that felt deeply personal, and I respect Wang for sharing her story. If this isn’t brilliant filmmaking, I don’t know what is.

Family photo of the Wangs with Nai Nai.

Once I reached the end of this movie and the credits started rolling, I found myself just sitting there and thinking. Is it possible to hide such important information from a loved one? How do you even say goodbye to someone? This was truly a fantastic watch that will make you feel a multitude of emotions and ponder over a thousand thoughts. It all adds up to become a wonderful experience. The story and the characters really connected with me, and for that reason, I’m personally going to give The Farewell a 9/10. If you’re interested in giving this one a watch, it’s currently streaming on Netflix Canada (not sure about the US, sorry!).