Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a groundbreaking work that’s authentic and deeply affecting.
Of all the things to do with a family member — in particular, a beloved grandparent in your clan — to keep them in the dark about their imminent demise seems like not just an unwise choice but a selfish one. You know, in case your grandmother had always wanted to fulfill that dream of a trip and walk the unearthed ruins of Pompei instead of, say. watching that episode of Frasier where they sneak Daphne across the border in that Winnebago because she doesn’t have her green card yet for the 100th time (that being said, you should seriously watch it once before you die, it’s a good one). The Farewell’s director Lulu Wang’s script, though, handles the situation with remarkable grace and an enlightening focus that engages the audience.
The main focus of the film is on the independent Chinese-American woman, Billi (Awkwafina of Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 fame), a writer who is having trouble making ends meet. While saving some coin by doing laundry at her parent’s house (played perfectly by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin), she finds out her beloved Nai Nai (newcomer Shuhzen Zhao) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and she doesn’t have much time left. The catch is that Chinese culture deems that you tell a family member first and they decide when the time is right; something this is highly illegal in the States but is a long-standing tradition in China because the thought is the stress of knowing is what kills you, not cancer. The plot setup is that Billi’s cousin will be getting married, on the fly really, to his girlfriend of three months, so everyone has gathered to be with her one last time.
What sets Lulu Wang’s story — based “on a true lie” — apart from other films that involve family gatherings is the way her script strips away any potential of melodrama or any quirky characters or storylines that bog down stories like this, usually to cover up a lack of understanding of how families deal with and talk to one another. The other element is the insight into a world on how this particular Asian culture deals with a highly emotionally charged situation with the potential loss of a beloved mother and grandmother, which it handles beautifully. Awkwafina’s Billi is headstrong, maybe even a little spoiled in her family’s eyes, and wants to tell her beloved Nai Nai that her body has turned on her. In one of the best scenes, in a film full of them, is the interaction she has with her uncle Haibin (a wonderful, scene-stealing Jiang Yongbo) that one life doesn’t belong to the individual like in the West, but in the East, it belongs to everyone.
Awkwafina’s acting career has been on the rise since her debut album, Yellow Ranger, and has transitioned into such comedies as Dude, Crazy Rich Asians, and Neighbors 2. She is very good in The Farewell, dealing with the inner turmoil of questioning the ethics of keeping a loved one in the dark about their fate. My one caveat is that she has always been a performer that I can’t help but find — there is no other word for it — funny since most of her roles have been for comic relief. There is a scene towards the end of The Farewell that I could not take seriously because of that natural ability, but otherwise, this is a career-altering performance for her. While Nora Lum is responsible for carrying the film on her back, it’s Shuzhen Zhao’s Nai Nai whose tender and blunt delivery had me at, “little round bottom.” She delivers the knockout goods which will cause the coldest or the most cynical of men to be choked up in her final scene.
Some might find fault with The Farewell on how the story is too reliant on the fact that the character in question would eventually figure out what is going on. The simple explanation is that denial is such a powerful thing and anyone can convince themselves otherwise, in the most obvious of situations. All of that though is a vehicle to tell a culturally specific story that is wholly original about how a family takes on grief and how they interact with each other when everything is on the table, that is universal yet unique to a culture from an outsider looking in. Lulu Wang’s eye for the tiniest moments helps move a story that is told honestly and manages to be entertaining at the same time. The Farewell is a groundbreaking work that’s authentic and deeply affecting.