In her moving sophomore feature film, “The Farewell,” writer/director Lulu Wang dives into the specific and the personal to unearth universal nuggets of divine truth about family, faith and fear.
At the beginning, the movie announces it’s “based on a real lie.” Wang reveals it’s about her own family, a “good lie” they once chose to tell.
In “The Farewell,” Chinese American New Yorker Billi (Awkwafina) is wracked with guilt when her family collectively decides to hide her beloved grandmother’s terminal lung cancer diagnosis from her.
The family solemnly gathers at Grandma Nai Nai’s home under the pretense that Billi’s cousin, Haohao (Han Chen), is marrying his Japanese girlfriend of three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara).
The family savors their last few moments with Nai Nai (the luminous, delightful Shuzhen Zhao), transferring their grief and celebration of her remarkable life through the preparations for the wedding.
They seem superstitious that if Nai Nai discovers her diagnosis, she’ll die. Not of cancer, but of fear. But the carefree Nai Nai remains as spunky as ever, just a bit winded, even though her children and grandchildren look positively stricken at seemingly every last hug and bite of meat pie.
The goodbye ruse at the center of “The Farewell” is the vessel for Billi to return to her family roots and reconnect with her Chinese heritage, to process the trauma of immigrating to the West as a child.
The perfectly cast Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”) portrays Billi as the embodiment of what it means to be both Chinese and American, not just in her code-switching but in her belief systems.
Her American-ness comes out in her demonstrative emotions, her outspoken insistence on honesty and individual freedom. It takes a bit of nudging to connect with the Chinese beliefs that shape her family dynamic.
A family that operates as one being takes some getting used to for the fiercely independent Billi. Nonetheless, she welcomes the warm embrace of a large extended family after growing up in a country without them.
But the insistence on little white lies as a means of avoiding worry rankles her, because it’s the source of her childhood trauma. She never understood why they left or where they were, or why she didn’t hear about her grandfather’s illness.
Mourning and ultimately moving on from the lack of control over the events of her life is how Billi heals herself, how she grows.
Wang, whose family emigrated to the United States from China when she was 6, displays a masterful control over the unique mood and tone of the film, which is at once hilarious and heartbreaking, meticulous in its meditation. Her delicate touch is all the more impressive seeing as how this is just her second feature film. Her first one, 2014’s “Posthumous,” a romantic comedy that didn’t get widespread release, never hinted at this level of talent.
The often haunting cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano, who splits her time between feature films and documentaries, seems to slow time and captures texture of place. Alex Weston’s forlorn and sometimes whimsical score of piano, strings and vocals adds to the eerie sense of suspended temporality and emotions that bridge sorrow and joy.
With impeccable craft, Wang has created a funny, heartfelt and bittersweet film that will ring riotously true for anyone who knows the joys and agonies of a large, complicated family, regardless of culture, ethnicity or nationality.
But it is significant that this family is Chinese because it’s in the details of their traditions and the way in which they interact with each other that the sometimes-searing, sometimes-sweet emotional truths at the heart of “Farewell” are fully revealed.
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG for thematic material. In English and subtitled Mandarin.