For a movie based on “an actual lie”, Lulu Wang’s family drama The Farewell ruminates long and hard on the stark truths of loss, grief, family and well-intentioned deception.
Starring the multi-talented Awkwafina as Chinese-born, New York-raised Billi, the film explores cultural divisions between Eastern and Western societies by focusing on the confusion that arises when an individual is stuck between the two.
Keeping in constant contact with her grandmother Nai Nai (Lu Hong) via long-distance phone calls, Billi is distraught to find out Nai Nai has been given three months to live by doctors. She is even more shocked to learn of the plot to hide the news from Nai Nai – the extended family is flying back to China to say goodbye to their matriarch under the guise of celebrating cousin Hao Hao’s (Han Chen) wedding to his Japanese girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara) of three months.
Billi arrives in China and attempts to contribute to the intricate charade the family has concocted, to varying levels of success. As Nai Nai laments that it has been too long since her sons and their families have all sat at the same table, the family make hurried attempts to mask the sadness plastered across their faces. Billi mopes through the film with shoulders sunken, constantly questioning the ethics of their decision. As she points out, it would be illegal to withhold medical information from a patient in the US. Her uncle (Yongbo Jiang) justifies the deceit by stating that in Chinese culture it is the burden of the family to bear this news.
Although the film focuses on Billi and her attempts to reconcile the conflict between her uneasiness about the lie and her family’s well-intentioned desire to protect Nai Nai, Awkwafina is almost outshone in every scene by Nai Nai and her antics. She is a human dynamo, maintaining her exercise routine, throwing together a wedding banquet at the last minute, ensuring all of her family eat and eat well in her house. Nai Nai exudes love in a no-nonsense way, however, she is not without vulnerability. As the film progresses and she shows flickers of concern for her ailing health, it becomes clear as to why the family is obscuring the truth – though it doesn’t make viewing it any easier.
As heart-wrenching as it is to watch, The Farewell is not without comedic elements. Awkwafina’s timing is on point, consistently highlighting the absurdity of each situation. However, she does not rely solely on her comedic abilities made famous in Ocean’s 8 (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) to bring this story to life. Billi has much more nuance than Awkwafina’s previous characters and she spends the film slowly peeling away the layers to Billi’s character with incredible skill and finesse.
All the hubbub surrounding The Farewell when it debuted at Sundance wasn’t a lie – it’s quite possibly one of the best dramedies to come out of 2019.
In addition to writing and directing, Lulu Wang also plays piano on the film’s soundtrack.