Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell stars actor-rapper Awkwafina as Billi, a young Chinese-American woman who is distraught to find out that her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In keeping with traditional Chinese beliefs, the family chooses not to tell Nai Nai (an affectionate Mandarin term for grandma) that she only has months to live, to spare her the emotional burden. It’s a decision that Billi vehemently disagrees with. Instead, the family arranges a wedding for Billi’s cousin as pretext for everyone to return home to Changchun, China to visit Nai Nai one last time.
In lesser hands, a story like this could easily have been an overwrought drama of sappy sentimentality, or a zany comedy that ignores the weight of the situation by focusing on cultural differences. Thankfully, The Farewell is neither. This film is subtle, sensitive and sharply observed – buoyed by organic humour and a tapestry of empathy that enlightens us to both sides of the conflict without being didactic. The Farewell mines universal resonance from a culturally specific deception because it’s so grounded in truth. “Based on an actual lie”, the reason this film feels deeply personal and authentic is partly due to its autobiographical nature.
As Wang first recounts in her 2016 story for This American Life, she too was born in China and was six years old when her parents emigrated to the United States. And much like her character Billi, Wang also traveled to China as an adult to visit her dying grandmother, where she was pressured by her parents and extended family not to reveal the illness. For viewers unfamiliar with the practice, Wang knows that Billi’s perspective is the easiest to understand. We feel Billi’s grief and we are confounded by the need for dishonesty. But the beauty of The Farewell is that it is not a movie about how Billi is morally right and the old ways are wrong.
The film lovingly sketches a family portrait that carefully depicts each relative’s thinking. A lie is a lie, but as one well-meaning doctor points out, this one “is a good lie” – and hardly a selfish one. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself,” Billi’s uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) explains. “But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” The secret isn’t a cruel evasion, the secret is a hardship that’s lifted from Nai Nai. A hardship that’s to be borne by the rest of the family, allowing Nai Nai a happy and unworried end. The Farewell brilliantly uses traditions to ponder how our sense of duty is shaped.
But outside or morality and mortality, The Farewell is also an endearing and mischievously funny dramedy, built upon deftly layered family dynamics – ranging from the relatable awkwardness of reunions to passive aggressive dinner table conversations. Some moments are emotionally potent, while others are hilarious in their absurdity. But more than anything, it’s the film’s depictions of caring and affection (gestures that fall outside of Western customs) that feel so winning. Simultaneously, Billi’s anxiety as an immigrant visiting her birth country is also a quietly affecting and beautifully understated delineation of the diaspora blues.
A lot is asked of Awkwafina, and despite her reputation as the firecracker comic relief – her powerful and poignant performance here is played with sublime restraint. Her subtle expressiveness and posture, alongside her naturalistic delivery of malaise and dislocation, showcases a side of Awkafina’s range that we’ve never seen before. But making up for Billi’s low-key personality, is Zhao Shuzhen’s warm and wonderful portrayal of her sprightly Nai Nai. Zhao’s beaming smile and sunny disposition is absolutely infectious, and her rapport with Awkwafina is magical – instantly investing us in their cross-generational relationship.
Despite some minor pacing issues, Lulu Wang has certainly crafted one of the most beautiful and bittersweet films of the year. From gorgeously composed shots of roiling emotional unease amidst China’s neon cityscape, to hilarious sequences that marry uncanny background humour with somber drama, to sophisticated moments of symbolism – Wang’s lens is just as assured as her pen. Taking place at the nexus of celebration and sorrow, individuality and family, grief and love, past and present, truth and deceit – The Farewell reconciles many dichotomies with exquisite poise in an affecting film that examines the roles of tradition and culture in our lives.