Written and Directed by Lulu Wang | 100 min | Netflix
Billi (Awkwafina) is close with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), even though they live a planet apart—Billi and her parents emigrated to America and she lives in New York, while Nai Nai lives in the Chinese city, Changchun. When Nai Nai goes into the hospital for tests, the doctor tells Nai Nai’s sister that Nai Nai has lung cancer, but the sister chooses not to tell her. The whole family hears the news and agrees to keep the secret from its matriarch. This is China, where apparently they believe it’s the fear of death, as much as the disease, that kills you. The family also feels a duty to carry the burden of this secret to allow Nai Nai as much happiness as she can have in what may be her final months. That includes orchestrating a wedding between Billi’s cousin (Han Chen) and his new girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara) in order to have an excuse to bring the family together.
What seems like a farcical premise is more than justified through a terrific script, while allowing Wang to explore both the functional and dysfunctional ways Chinese families maintain tradition and construct expectation and obligation. The lie is enormous, but the film shows again and again how we all omit certain aspects of the truth in order to cushion the lives of the ones we love.
Billi is entirely Westernized having moved to New York when she was six, a Millennial still forming her own identity, so she has the toughest time maintaining the pretence, but her parents (sterling character actor Tzi Ma and Diana Lin), her uncle (Yongbo Jiang) and other family members around her all struggle with the pressure of this burden. Maybe the strangest part about it is her cousin and his Japanese fiancé, roughly Billi’s age and lifting the heaviest part of the lie by getting married three months into their relationship, are largely silent on how they manage it.
Spending time in the apartments, hotels, streets, and restaurants of Changchun, Wang explores the day-to-day reality of life in China—from the need to boil tap water in order to make it potable to the absence of legislation protecting patient confidentiality. It’s not judgmental, nor sentimental—Wang uses bird symbolism to help illustrate the universal nature of family love and belonging, and elicits a remarkable performance from Awkwafina, to date largely known for her comedic work, and the ensemble of actors around her.
This is a family drama, to be sure, but it has a lot of comedic moments. The small group in the cinema I saw it in weren’t in a laughing mood, apparently, so I wound up leading that charge. In the right frame of mind, The Farewell could be as hilarious as it is touching.