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The Farewell

by Philip Martin | August 9, 2019 at 1:44 a.m.

When filmmaker Lulu Wang's grandmother, who she calls "Nai Nai," was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2008, doctors gave her just three months to live.

Wang's family decided not to tell her, instead letting her believe that the tests had been benign. But they did arrange to gather for a goodbye party. Wang, who'd immigrated to Miami from China with her parents when she was 6 years old, flew back to Changchun, China, to say goodbye.

The Farewell

87 Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhao, Hong Lu, Yongbo Jiang, Gil Perez-Abraham, Aoi Mizuhara

Director: Lulu Wang

Rating: PG, for thematic material, brief language and some smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Apparently such deceptions aren't exactly unknown in Chinese culture, where fear of impending death is believed to hasten the inevitable. What you don't know might help you survive a few more months or years.

Anyway Wang wrote a story about her experience, and shared it on a This American Life radio broadcast in 2016. Not long after that she started developing it into her second feature film (after 2014's Posthumous).

In this lightly fictionalized version, rapper Awkwafina, who stole many scenes in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8, takes on her first dramatic leading role as Billi, a New York-based writer who learns her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), with whom she regular chats on the phone, has only a few months to live. As in real life, Nai Nai is oblivious to her diagnosis.

As in real life, Billi and her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) head off to China, ostensibly for the wedding of Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) but really to say their final goodbyes to the unsuspecting Nai Nai. They have reservations about Billi's accompanying them -- they suspect she might be too Americanized to play along with the deception. After all, Billi loves Nai Nai so much and she's used to wearing her emotions on her sleeve. She could give the game away with an ill-timed sob.

It's easy to see how such a high concept could have gone wrong as the template for overt broad comedy, but Wang is a sensitive writer alert to the tempered nuances and civilized hypocrisies that keep us from murdering our loved ones. Her story is specific, her characters so deftly sketched and believably contradictory that we take for granted that they've been drawn from real life. While Billi is indeed a thoroughly assimilated American, prone to candor and suspicious of the old ways, she's no more a caricature than her tenderly drawn parents or the indomitable (and hardly credulous) Nai Nai. From the beginning, we see Billi indulging in good fibs to save the feelings of others. As a writer she's given to invention and confabulation.

It reminded me of a few other films, Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet (1990), Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci's Big Night (1996) and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993) chief among them. All these films are about family dynamics, about guilt and selflessness and our peculiar ways of keeping secrets and telling lies. (They're also about the way we offload our emotions and scarf them down as sumptuous, comforting food.)

With a sparkling ensemble cast -- the designated scene-stealer here is the Japanese actress Aoi Mizuhara as an eager-to-please bride who can't understand a word of what her new Chinese family is saying to her -- The Farewell explores questions of individual identity and cultural divides and arrives at the conclusion that we mightn't be so different after all.

MovieStyle on 08/09/2019

Print Headline: The Farewell


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