by Ken Bakely
A cynic might think that the setup of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell seems quite familiar in the abstract, in that it’s an exploration of a large family’s generational and cultural dynamics. Yet few other movies could do so with such grace and keen sense of thought, or to have the confidence that it is enough to do so with the wry humor of everyday life that is peppered so carefully throughout. Through the perspective of Billi (Awkwafina), a 31-year-old writer who emigrated from China to the United States with her parents when she was six, we follow an impromptu family reunion in the Chinese city of Changchun when it is learned that Billi’s grandmother, known to her as Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with metastasized, inoperable lung cancer. In accordance with certain customs within Chinese society, however, the family has decided not to inform Nai Nai of her condition, lest her knowing the extent of her illness deteriorate her health that much faster. Instead, in order to see her for what will likely be the last time, they construct the ruse that they are reuniting to plan and hold a wedding for Hao Hao (Chen Han), Billi’s cousin, who now lives in Japan. (Much is made of how they will pass this off, considering that Hao Hao and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) have only been dating for three months, but Nai Nai seems unfazed, going insofar to take the incentive to fudge the “official” timeline of the relationship, lest such a sudden marriage cause gossip.)
Billi is deeply conflicted by the choice her family has made to construct this elaborate lie, and over the days leading up to the event, grapples with the juxtaposition between her worldview as an American and the ones of her relatives, who have either lived in China for much longer, or still do. As she says to her father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), this wouldn’t even be legally possible in the United States. Much of the movie lives in the spaces of this uncertain personal journey. Wang does not become overwhelmed by a quest to draw neat conclusions or make large proclamations. This story is a chapter in life, and one that intersects cultural backgrounds, times, and places. The film operates in a beautifully adaptive element, by turns funny, poignant, and heartrending in its well-honed observations, without ever feeling like there’s a deliberate need to switch gears from one scene to the next. That tonal naturalism keeps the movie as something of a mosaic, piecing together instances, big and small, into the detailed and honest work at hand. Leading a roundly fine cast is Awkwafina, whose ability to allow Billi to react in a myriad of ways to what she sees as a strange and somewhat unethical situation does not preclude either the deeper nuances of the character’s development nor those of the film; The Farwell is, above all, a wonderful appeal to empathy. Her scenes with all of her characters’ relatives further this, but none so acutely as those with Zhao. Nai Nai’s sharp personality – even the silliest banter is based in a clear, lifelong sense of smart determination – feels even more evident considering Billi’s desire to relish their time together more than ever before, but unable to express why.
Of course, this is something that everyone in the family is going through, and while The Farewell chooses one particular narrative to tell its story through, that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive or narrow in its scope. The film’s moment-to-moment light and warmth is based on everything coming together as much as it is in the tiniest gestures between characters. There’s almost an ironic difficulty of trying to convey through words how good Wang is at this balance. Her approach is the most evident through a bulk of nonverbal devices, whether they be through characters’ actions or the compositions of images and shots. This, of course, may seem like a self-evident comment about good filmmaking of any kind, but what makes the achievements here so remarkable is how she makes such precise and knowing use of dialogue, intentions, and actions in a story otherwise based around characters’ attempts to conceal or avoid conveying information. In the film’s plot, everything feels like a potential challenge, and every word must be chosen carefully when Nai Nai is in the room. These relatives have come from various far-flung locations to this event. The reality behind it can’t be openly discussed, and yet, from the perspective of viewers, it’s hard to imagine a film that feels so consistently true and comprehensive. After all, it’s less about the mechanics of the lie at the center than it is about how these characters, within the structures of it, interact and live within their varying life experiences and philosophies of how to view the human condition. It’s rich in depth and scope, but always so present in its ability to express.