The Farewell is, according to an opening title card, "based on an actual lie," and yet it is a film that contains so much truth. Writer-director Lulu Wang has taken real experiences and spun them into a movie that celebrates the breadth of life through the inevitability of death. That might sound corny, but this film most certainly isn't.
Wang's likeness in the film is a young, unmoored woman named Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-born American just barely scraping by in New York City. While she's doing laundry at her parents' house — one of those well-observed, lived-in touches about regular life that the movie gets right — she discovers that her beloved grandmother, who she calls Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She likely won't be around in three months.
But Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) doesn't know she's dying. The family has decided to keep her prognosis a secret from her, telling her those dark spots on the X-rays are merely "benign shadows." In order to gather her relatives in the city of Changchun to furtively say their goodbyes, they stage a fake, elaborate wedding banquet for one of the family's cousins, whose Japanese girlfriend is now implicated in the scheme.
Billi is horrified by the whole thing. It's well-meaning deception, but it's deception nonetheless. And what if Nai Nai has matters she wants settled before she dies? Nothing to fret about, she's told: Nai Nai doesn't have anything like that. Billi's parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) don't want her to come to China, afraid she'll be unable to hide her true emotions, but Billi puts a plane ticket on her credit card and flies to Changchun without any advance notice.
I suppose this set-up could have easily inspired some kind of wacky farce, or a somber meditation on the performative nature of preparing for death. The Farewell is neither of those things. This very real story, which Wang previously recounted in a 2016 segment on This American Life, contains scenes of tenderness and of bitterness, and as many moments of broad comedy as quiet wit. This tone is best exemplified in the climactic faux-wedding banquet, when all that repressed emotion finally bursts under pressure, as the evening swings from celebration to eulogy and back again.
Wang is a fine observer of the small details of these peoples' lives, like Nai Nai's companion, who can barely hear and shuffles through their tiny apartment with his head down. Or the uncle who swears by the sketchy experimental medication he bought online, and the hotel concierge who gleefully interrogates Billi about all the customs of the United States. And Nai Nai's fretting about the menu for the party, and the tense discussion between the family's American expats and the Chinese nationalists.
The script explores those cultural differences in deft, canny ways, particularly in its treatment of the grand display that is death in Chinese culture. In one of the film's best, funniest and most poignant scenes, Nai Nai leads her family to the grave of her husband, where they leave offerings of food, flowers and trinkets. As Billi's father lights a cigarette and leaves it for the dead man, Nai Nai protests: "He quit smoking!" she exclaims.
These moments all feel like they were pulled straight from Wang's experience; she even has some members of her own family playing fictionalized versions of themselves. The standout performance here is Zhao Shuzhen, who has appeared in Chinese TV series throughout her career but is making her film debut here. It's a remarkable performance, the key to the whole film, a matriarch who is blunt and no-nonsense and yet capable of tremendous warmth. And Awkwafina, who broke out last year as comic relief sidekicks in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, is finally put front and center in a film, and she announces herself as a magnetic and subtle dramatic actor.
The Farewell walks such a delicate balance between humor and melancholy, and in that sense it is much like its characters, trying so hard to appear cheerful in the face of impending death. This is a sad movie and a charming movie. It's life-affirming and reflective. It doesn't take cheap emotional shots, or wallow in exploitative manipulation, and you will leave the theater with just a little more faith in humanity. ♦