Billi (Awkwafina) moved to America with he mother and father when just a child, leaving the rest of the family behind in China. When they get the news from home that her beloved Nai Nai is dying of cancer, the decision has already been made to not tell her. Instead, an impromptu family wedding is hastily arranged and everyone returns for “The Farewell.”
Sophomore feature writer-director Lulu Wang tells a heartfelt story of a granddaughter who is in conflict with her family over the pending death of her Nai Nai. Billi thinks it is wrong not to tell the truth – “What if she wants to say goodbye?” – but, to keep peace in the family, she reluctantly agrees to go along with their decision.
Billi, arrears in rent and losing her fellowship (and secure future), decides to go on the trip, despite the admonitions by all that she can’t keep a secret. And, it is a struggle for her to keep that secret. But, the frenzied activity of the wedding – like arguing with the caterer over whether they will serve crab or lobster (Nai Nai and he sister want the lobster) – help to distract Billi from her dilemma. The result is an endearing slice of family life.
I am a 67 year old white American film critic, so what kind of empathy, or sympathy, can I have for a movie by young, Chinese-born femme writer-director Lulu Wang? Well, I came out of seeing “The Farewell” and my thought was “That was my Nana!” There is universality to Wang’s family story of the love and pending loss of a beloved grandmother that will strike anyone who has loved their grandma. I give it a B+.
Billi (Awkwafina) maintains her tight bond with her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) in China through phone calls, the time difference still perplexing the older woman. But this time, unbeknownst to Billi, her Nai Nai is lying to her, telling her granddaughter she's at her sister's when we can see she's at the hospital. This is the first lie of this 'true story based on an actual lie,' but the central one is a family's decision to hide a cancer diagnosis from Nai Nai with an elaborate destination wedding in Changchun disguising "The Farewell."
Writer/director Lulu Wang ("Posthumous") transforms her own family experience into a funny and touching film that examines the myriad ways we react to our own mortality. While in the United States it is required that doctors give patients honest medical readings, in China it is common to hide terminal diagnoses with the belief that patients will be happier not knowing their days are numbered. But while it is this ethical quandary that drives Wang's narrative, the filmmaker exploits her family gathering for observations large and small, her sprawling ensemble locked in East vs. West debates spurred on by parental one-upmanship.
Nai Nai may not be at her sister's but it is her sister (Lu Hong) who relays that her CTI scan results show 'benign shadows,' a dubious phrase that gets a real workout and one Nai Nai arguably sees right through (this may be a two-way lie, although Wang leaves that up to us to decide). Back in NYC, Billi's parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) and are so obviously down, she finally gets them to admit what is going on, but they do not want her to make the trip, afraid that her emotions will betray the truth. Billi is struggling, just turned down for the Guggenheim fellowship she's been hoping for, her rent overdue, but there is no way she is not going back to the homeland she hasn't seen since the age of six.
Everyone is surprised when Billi shows up at Nai Nai's apartment and while she does indeed look stricken, it doesn't seem to register in the general bustle of family reunion and food, lots of food. Her father's older brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), accompanies her to the new hotel in the neighborhood, a place where the elevator doesn't work and a room down the hall is hosting a sinister gathering of gambling and girls. Billi is a stranger in a strange land in the place of her birth.
But her reunion with her Nai Nai is a joyful one. The two exercise out of doors, Nai Nai's shouted 'Hai!' intended to drive toxins from her body. She's with her grandmother as the older woman frets over the wedding plans for her grandson Haohao (Han Chen), furious that the lobster she was promised will instead be crab. At the wedding itself, the family indulges in more eating. And drinking. Then Billi discovers Nai Nai's housecleaner was sent to the hospital to pick up her grandmother's test results and races to beat her to the punch, now part of the plot.
Awkwafina is the first among equals in an ensemble that clicks together as naturally as the family they portray. The more dramatic role allows her to exhibit her range, here a mix of sorrow, love and nostalgia. There is a poignancy to her performance, beautifully expressed by Wang in the symbolism of the sparrow Billi finds in her NYC apartment, a bird in the house thought to portend death (she finds another in that hotel room a half a world away). Another beautiful reminder of those who have passed occurs after a family visit to the grave of Nai Nai's husband, itself a comedic ritual of professional criers, spilled Jagermeister and a lit cigarette ('let him smoke, he's dead') when Billi sees smoke drift past her window and her Ya Ya in her room. Wang excels with this mixture of levity and heart tugs, personified in Mr. Li, Nai Nai's dismissively treated live-in boyfriend who shuffles about like a ghost, attending to her needs. The filmmaker underlines her own dual cultural identity struggle not only through Billi, but with Haohao non-Chinese speaking fiancée Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara).
As one might expect, "The Farewell" concludes with one, but not in the way we anticipate. Wang signs off with a surprise in her own personal history that will leave you smiling.
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