It feels like an incredibly trite observation to make that the story director LuLu Wang is telling in her film The Farewell is universal despite being centered around a Chinese family. It’s one of those go-to descriptors us white people love to pull out when we enjoy a story that doesn’t revolve around people who look like us. As if we have to be the ones to swoop in and proclaim something worthy because we were able to connect with an entire cast of non-whites for 90+ continuous minutes. We’re so used to whiteness being centered in virtually all popular entertainment that it feels like the biggest triumph – something on a UNIVERSAL scale – when that isn’t the case.
The Farewell isn’t universal despite featuring an exclusively Chinese cast. The Farewell is universal because it tells a very moving story that is steeped in the messiness of human emotion and relationships. Wang taps into a broad array of topics including culture clash, nostalgia for extended family you’ve only visited a few times, and dealing with the existential finality of death. She does all this in a very funny comedy that is also by turns poignant and mournful. Her film manages to never slip into maudlin sentimentality. It is a deeply satisfying, at times cathartic, success.
Loosely based on actual events that she first crafted into a narrative for the radio program This American Life, The Farewell is about Lulu Wang’s own grandmother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. First-generation American and twenty-something Billi (the character who stands in for Wang) is devastated when she learns her grandmother – whom the family affectionately refers to as Nai Nai – only has three months to live. She is also very confused when her parents tell her that Nai Nai doesn’t know about her condition, and her family is choosing not to tell her, so as not to upset her.
Billi’s mother, Jian, and her father, Haiyan, think it best if Billi doesn’t join them on the trip from New York back to China to visit Nai Nai one last time. They think she won’t be able to hide her emotions, and that she’ll end up telling Nai Nai the real reason her family has returned home. Against their wishes, the struggling artist scrapes together airfare and arrives on Nai Nai’s doorstep, unable to explain the distraught look on her face.
Wang complicates the idea of culture clash with the outlandish ruse – she mischievously opens the movie with the line “based on an actual lie” – that Billi’s extended family employs to explain their reunion to Nai Nai. They tell the matriarch that her grandson (and Billi’s cousin), Hao Hao, is getting married. This might sound like the set-up for an episode of a bad sitcom, but Wang smartly never goes too broad with the execution.
That’s not to say the details of faking a wedding for the benefit of one person isn’t full of big laughs. Hao Hao, who lives in Japan and has roped his Japanese girlfriend of three months (who speaks no Chinese) into the deception, spends the film looking comically befuddled. What’s even better is Nai Nai isn’t impressed with the (fake) bride-to-be, but she soldiers on like any loving grandmother would. She even takes charge of organizing the banquet hall for the wedding, becoming upset when the caterer pulls a switcheroo of crab instead of lobster for dinner.
Billi, who was raised in America but feels strong ties to China, despite only visiting the country and her extended family a handful of times as she grew up, tries, not always successfully, to navigate both worlds. The hardest thing for her to understand is not telling a loved one that they are dying. Wang is presumably detailing her own confusion at the situation. That spoke to someone like me: a white product of a Western culture who found strange the idea of keeping a terminal illness a secret from the sufferer for as long as possible. The brilliance of Wang’s movie is that she uses empathy and emotion to let everyone connect to the idea.
Late in the film, Billi’s uncle, Haibin, explains that the East has a stronger sense of community than in the West. Because of that, the family is willing to carry the emotional burden of the illness for Nai Nai until close to the end, so she doesn’t have to deal with it on her own.
Awkwafina, known more as a rapper and for comedic turns in movies like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, plays Billi. She is a revelation in The Farewell. Her comedic skills and timing are on full display in the picture, but it’s the quiet melancholy of her performance that struck me. Her looks of distress as she remembers happier times with her Nai Nai in China are subtle, yet so effective. She has a scene late in the second act, a fight between Billi and her mother, that is devastating. If the movie is remembered come Oscar season, this one scene should serve to get Awkwafina her first Best Actress nomination.
And while Awkwafina’s character is at the center of The Farewell, one performance threatens to – and in a few choice moments, does – steal the spotlight. Making her American debut, 75-year-old actor Zhao Shuzhen is perfection as Nai Nai. Shuzhen gives Nai Nai a gruff exterior that hides (just barely) a loving and doting nature that she extends to her family – especially her grandchildren – whenever they need it. The actor’s performance is funny and touching. Nai Nai reminded me in some ways of my own grandmother, who died of cancer a few years ago.
The Farewell is Lulu Wang’s second feature film. Her first effort, 2014’s Posthumous, went mostly unnoticed. After witnessing her talent at creating heartfelt sentiment and a warm atmosphere from seemingly opposing emotional states (comedy and tragedy), I look forward to catching up with Posthumous, as well as seeing what Wang does next.
Why it got 4 stars:
- The Farewell is such a satisfying blend of comedy and pathos. Lulu Wang (with the help of Awkwafina and the rest of the ensemble cast) walk a very fine line with the film’s tone. It would have been easy to go too far in either direction, but they somehow keep a meditation on the death of a loved one light enough to be enjoyable.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The fake smile Awkwafina plasters on her face at one point in the movie is priceless.
- I am of two minds about the editing of The Farewell. There are certain moments (the most prominent one that comes to mind is a moment in a stairwell between Billi and Nai Nai) that lasts just long enough to get the point across without belaboring it. Billi is watching her grandmother walk up the stairs. She is clearly sad, because she knows she will lose a dear family member soon. Just as Awkwafina’s expression lets us see into her soul, the film cuts to the next scene. Other sequences (particularly toward the end of the movie) become a little sluggish. The filmmakers would have benefited from tightening up the pace at the end. That is one of the only complaints I have about The Farewell, and it’s a very minor one.
- Alex Weston’s plaintive score is incredibly beautiful.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- The advance screening I attended was packed. People seemed eager to see The Farewell, and the vibe during and after was electric. Lulu Wang was in attendance, and did a short Q&A after the screening. She made me feel better about the fact that I couldn’t quite figure out why two different birds get into Billi’s bedroom (one in her apartment in New York, one in her hotel room in China). During the Q&A, she said even she didn’t know the significance of it.