I can see why Lulu Wang’s The Farewell was so well-received out of Sundance. It’s a thoughtful portrait of the cultural clash between the East and the West, possessed of subtle confidence and a distinctive indie aesthetic. When American-born Chinese writer Billi (Awkwafina) returns home to say goodbye to her terminally-ill grandma (Shuzhen Zhao), she’s forced to grapple with her Western impulse for an outward expression of grief in a society that would prefer not tell her ailing Nai Nai of her diagnosis at all.
Indeed, there’s plenty to like about The Farewell, especially its precisely-off-kilter cinematography, exploiting negative space in the top half of the frame to evoke the awkwardness of the shared familial deception. But for me, it’s too insubstantial to resonate the way it did with Sundance critics. Having recently experienced the death of my grandmother, the film should’ve been devastating, but instead I felt that too many of the family members were paper-cut-outs: thin and underwritten.
I’m not enamoured of Awkwafina’s work here, either. When she’s given (occasional) licence to unleash her comedic charm, she’s great, but her affected slouch and perpetual sourpuss demeanour clashes against the film’s intended naturalism. Well-crafted, undeniably, but not for me.