After my wife and I watch a movie, it's our routine to sit by the theater windows to discuss it. We'd talk about what's good, what's bad, our favorite parts, etc. Following The Farewell, we still settled next to the windows, but we sat in silence. Without saying a word, we mutually agreed to postpone talking about the movie. We wanted it to let it sit with us for a moment, for we knew we just watched something special.
The characters in The Farewell are so believable that I didn't need to read Lulu Wang's interviews to confirm that she remained diligently faithful to her true life. The film's personalities heavily invest you in the movie with charming nuisances, relatable dialog, and wonderful performances. Because the cast feels like an actual living family, the audiences' laughs are harder, the pains deeper. The Farewell is proof that a movie doesn't have to be clever to be affecting, it just needs to be real.
There's a quiet commentary on Chinese modernization in The Farewell with its gorgeous glimpses of copy-and-pasted stark residential skyscrapers imposed against foggy skies, scintillating streets, and portraits of ordinary people living with such naturalness that they become extraordinary. At one point Billi (Awkwafina's character) laments the disappearances of sites that she used to know and love, but you don't get the sense that the film is criticizing this progress. Its tone is one more akin to acceptance, as if the film's citizens are tacitly saying "our home is changing, but it's still ours."
The Farewell starts in New York, then the majority of the film takes place in China, and finally it brings us back to New York again. I get the feeling that even if you've never been to China, by the time Billi comes home you still might start to miss China and the constant feasting around lazy Susans. This is the power of the film - it imbues in you a longing for the feeling of togetherness, a value Western countries often replace with individualism. When you see Billi back, walking through the diverse crowds of New York, the difference is palpable. The Farewell is the best cultural lesson on China that I can think of, and to Asian Americans living abroad like me, it's the warmest reminder of home.