The Farewell

The Farewell ★★★★½


A plot summary of writer-director Lulu Wang’s superlative sophomore feature, The Farewell, reads like the sort of tear-jerking, family-focused indie dramedy that typically thrives at the Sundance Film Festival. (Indeed, the film was a hit at the fest this past January, netting Wang a Grand Jury Prize nomination for drama.) Billi (Crazy Rich Asians scene-stealer Awkwafina), a 30-ish Chinese-American writer living in NYC, has a warm long-distance relationship with her feisty paternal grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), a widow whom the family affectionately refers to as Nai Nai. It’s therefore a painful shock when Billi learns from her suburbanite parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), that doctors in China have diagnosed Nai Nai with late-stage lung cancer, estimating that she has just a few months to live. What truly sends the thoroughly Americanized Billi into an anguished lather, however, is the family’s resolve to conceal this grim prognosis from Nai Nai herself, reportedly a not-uncommon practice in China. Instead, the family cooks up a pretext to gather their scattered clan together in Nai Nai’s home city of Chungchun: celebrating the hastily planned marriage of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara).

Everyone other than Nai Nai herself is in on this morbid deception, including the matriarch’s sister, Little Nai Nai (Hong Lu), who intercepts her elder sibling’s medical results and declares that the spots on her MRI have been determined to be “benign shadows.” Meanwhile, Billi’s nervous parents try to dissuade her from traveling to Chungchun for her cousin’s shotgun wedding. They’re fearful that Billi’s close bond with her grandmother, combined with her own sensitive, expressive personality, will fatally undermine the family’s ruse. Billi ignores this advice, paying her own way to China – a decision eased by the compulsion to escape a crushing professional disappointment in America. Thus begins a poker-faced, melancholic farce in which every family member, Billi included, dons a forced smile for Nai Nai’s sake and tries to appreciate what will presumably be their last opportunity to spend time with her.

It’s exactly the kind of high-concept, emotionally fraught scenario that American indies specialize in serving up, although in this instance it is built on the closely observed cultural and psychological specifics of the Chinese-American immigrant experience. That specificity is far from incidental: The Farewell is essentially a fictionalized version of the very real benevolent deception that Wang’s relatives perpetrated on her grandmother. Wang recounted the incident in a 2016 episode of This American Life, and the film closely follows the story beats as she described them on that program. Little Nai Nai and her beloved singing Chihuahua, Ellen, even play themselves on screen ...

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