The Farewell

Few films that tackle a subject as daunting as death itself have ever done so with such a light touch as Lulu Wang's sophomore effort The Farewell, an understated family drama lovingly realized with warmth and humor. The film is also a deeply personal and autobiographical one for its writer/director, "Based on an actual lie" as the pre-title text lets us viewers know. It concerns a young Chinese-American woman Billi, played by rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina in a revelatory, naturalistic lead performance. Struggling to find success as a writer in New York City while jumping from various dead-end jobs and unable to pay rent, she lives in close proximity with her overbearing immigrant parents, but enjoys a warm long-distance relationship with her grandmother, affectionately called "Nai-Nai" (Zhao Shuzhen). The actual lie that the opening text refers to is soon revealed to be that Nai-Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has only a few months to live, but in keeping with Chinese customs, the family has assured Nai-Nai she is healthy, so as to ensure her final days are as peaceful as possible. Instead, they intend to plan one last family reunion under the guise of a wedding for Billi's cousin and his girlfriend of three months, so that Nai-Nai can stay busy planning the ceremonies unburdened by the knowledge of her impending mortality. This decision of course does not sit well with Billi, who has been instructed by her parents to stay in New York the whole time as they don't trust her ability to maintain the ruse. Nevertheless, Billi defies her family and travels on her own to Changchun to see her Nai-Nai and make the most of their time together. As the story progresses Billi slowly begins to develop a change of heart on the subject of telling Nai-Nai the truth. She also finds herself wrestling with her own feelings about her family's lifelong expectations of her in contrast to her own emotional needs, as well as her cultural identity as a Chinese-American daughter of first-generation immigrants.

While The Farewell's contrived premise and its melodramatic story are rife with moments that would come off overly sentimental in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Wang displays a remarkable intelligence as a storyteller, never allowing the many deeply felt emotions brought to the surface in the film to veer into schmaltz. The Farewell is a picture that life flows generously from in one master shot to the next. Wang expertly captures many richly-observed family interactions while her cast seems perfectly in sync with both the dramatic and comedic tone of scenes. As Nai-Nai, Zhao Shuzhen is absolutely delightful, imbuing the family matriarch with sharp wit and a lively soul. Though her lungs may be failing, one never senses for a minute her spirits are in poor health. Whether she is fussing over wedding arrangements or reminiscing with Billi, her performance never once registers a false note. As The Farewell draws on I also got the sneaking suspicion from her performance that Nai-Nai may not be as in the dark about her condition as she leads on to her family, especially when it's revealed she laid to rest her late husband who also passed from a cancer he was led to believe was benign. This added layer her performance lends to the story further complicates the already rich theme of family deceiving loved ones out of what is believed to be their best interest.

All of Wang's ensemble cast get at least one moment to shine, but the standout performance in The Farewell unquestionably belongs to Awkwafina. Breaking away from her comedic supporting roles in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, she reveals a startling amount of raw talent while carrying much of the film's dramatic weight, and providing viewers a point of emotional entry into this very specific family. Her down-to-earth performance quietly commands our attention while she brings vivid life to the character of Billi (especially in her interactions with her mother and Nai-Nai), deftly navigating the contrasting moments of humor and sadness on her journey. Awkwafina effortlessly taps into universal emotions that make her Billi such an easily identifiable protagonist, even as her barely-repressed grief gives way to outpourings of anger and resentment. Behind the camera, Wang's numerous long takes and thoughtful compositions are appropriately suited to her intimate screenplay, recalling the similarly restrained work of Ang Lee as well as the late Taiwanese master Edward Yang. The Farewell feels in some ways like it takes direct inspiration from Yang's 2000 masterpiece Yi-Yi, another family portrait that empathetically observes how three different generations in one family deal with both loss and a changing world. While The Farewell is perhaps not quite as ambitious or transcendently great as that touchstone of 21st century world cinema, it's a credit to Wang and her collaborators that such a comparison can be drawn from an artist with only their second feature. There is just one moment, in which Billi's uncle speaks at length on the difference between Eastern and Western culture- that in the former it is taught to see oneself as part of a larger whole both in regards to family and society; while the latter, in contrast, has romanticised individualism- which hits a little too on-the-nose to register for me. Despite that, there's much to love in The Farewell; from an extended wedding sequence that is both touching and funny to a tense race to retrieve Nai-Nai's test results before she can see them, and absolutely no shortage of delicious looking Chinese food throughout.