The Farewell opens with five cheeky words: “based on an actual lie.” This funny, melancholy ensemble drama was inspired by an experience that the writer-director Lulu Wang and her family went through years ago, when they were told that Wang’s grandmother was terminally ill. They decided to keep her in the dark about her diagnosis, hoping to spare her unnecessary fear and anxiety — an extreme decision, perhaps, but one that the movie suggests is hardly unheard of among Chinese families.
Wang’s on-screen alter ego is Billi, a broke, unemployed New Yorker in her early 30s, played superbly by Awkwafina. Billi moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6, but she has fond memories of her early years in the northern Chinese city of Changchun, and she retains a close bond with her paternal grandmother — that’s “Nai Nai” in Chinese.
One day she’s visiting her parents, played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, and they tell her that Nai Nai has only a few months to live. Billi’s parents go on to explain that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai her prognosis. Instead, a phony wedding is being thrown for her cousin in China as a hasty excuse for a family reunion.
Billi is urged not to come, as everyone fears that she’ll spill the beans. But she buys a plane ticket anyway, catching her parents and other relatives off-guard. Billi disapproves of the family’s dishonesty, and although she goes along with it, she tries to persuade them to tell Nai Nai the truth. But they dismiss her attitude as typical of her youthful naivete and her self-centered American upbringing. Westerners may grieve with hugs and tears, but in their view, the most profound expressions of love and devotion are the ones that remain unspoken.
Wang has a thing for stories about death and deception: She made her feature directing debut with Posthumous, a 2014 comedy about an artist who fakes his own suicide. In The Farewell, she mines a lot of humor from the family’s scheme, from the last-minute wedding preparations to the manipulation of Nai Nai’s medical test results. Wang and her actors capture the anxiety of a celebration where no one is really in a celebratory mood, and one false word or move could spell disaster.
But The Farewell doesn’t need a lot of farcical complications to pull us in. Wang knows that it’s fascinating enough to be a fly on the wall at this family gathering. I was reminded of the dim-sum lunches and lavish dinner banquets that took up a good chunk of my Chinese American youth. And yes, I was reminded of my own indomitable grandmother, who, just like Billi’s Nai Nai, knows that the truest way to say “I love you” is to heap food onto your plate, whether you asked for it or not.
Billi’s grandmother is played in a pitch-perfect performance by Zhao Shuzhen, who all but glows with stubbornness, exasperation and pride. The bond between grandmother and granddaughter is lovely to behold, and Awkwafina, such a memorable scene stealer in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, is a marvel in her first dramatic starring role. Speaking mostly in fluent but slightly faltering Mandarin, she plays Billi as a young woman trapped between two worlds, having never fully recovered from the loneliness of leaving China as a young girl.
Billi isn’t the only character wrestling with her cultural identity. The strongest scene is a verbal sparring match involving her parents, aunts and uncles: Some of them cling proudly to their Chinese identity, while others acknowledge the better opportunities they’ve found in America and elsewhere abroad. Wang leaves these arguments unresolved, which is not to say she’s wholly ambivalent. She drops in small, isolated moments of social critique, glimpses of a modern China whose much-touted prosperity has come at an undeniable human cost.
As personal as this material must be for Wang, it’s her emotional restraint that paradoxically makes the film so moving. Occasionally she’ll go in for a closeup, but most of the time she likes to frame her characters in group shots, as though asserting the importance of everyone’s point of view. The Farewell left me thinking about the beautiful imperfection of every family, and the importance of treating our loved ones with decency and humility every chance we get. Our time together is too short, whether we know it or not.