Lulu Wang’s personal story about her grandmother is so good she’s told it already. On the acclaimed radio show This American Life, Wang detailed how her family went to great and often bizarre lengths (like altering medical reports) to keep her grandmother in the dark about her cancer diagnosis. Now, like many of the radio program’s fascinating stories, Wang’s has been adapted for the screen, directed and written by Wang herself.
The Farewell, Wang’s second film after 2014’s art world satire Posthumous, opens with a statement that sets up her tongue-in-cheek sense of humor: “Based on an actual lie.” Her comedic eye shines through as she deftly captures the quirks of a Chinese family in a magical, semi-autobiographical portrait. At the heart of this movie is the unique experience of a young Chinese-American straddling two very different cultures.
Billi Wang, played by Awkwafina who’s best known for her comedic supporting roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, is a Chinese-born American who moved to New York at a very young age from Changchun, a city in the northeast of China. Having formed a strong bond with her grandmother, who she calls Nainai (Mandarin for grandmother), she still has one foot planted in a country thousands of miles away.
Then comes the lie: Billi’s family in China decides to keep Nainai’s cancer diagnosis hidden from her. Nainai’s little sister, who receives the doctor’s prognosis on behalf of her elderly sibling, pretends a scan reveals only “benign shadows” and tells Nainai she’s perfectly healthy.
If you’re raising your eyebrows at this, you’re not alone. Billi too is skeptical, and presses her parents to tell her why. They say this is normal in China. Families prefer not to let their elderly worry, in case it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.
Despite being late with rent and receiving a rejection letter for a Guggenheim writing fellowship, Billi heads off to China to see Nainai for what might be the last time. This is against her parents’ wishes: they believe she’s too emotional and will let slip the truth to Nainai. She must keep her grief zipped tight.
It all sounds like heavy subject matter, but the color, music and laughter of Billi’s family are irrepressible. Family dinners are textured with loud chatter, mounds of food, chopsticks flitting into frame from left and right. Wang picks out all the eccentricities of Billi’s family, including a fantastically funny and heartwarming scene where Nainai tries to teach a hesitant Billi to yell out in the street to release pent up energy.
These light moments ebb into deeper discussions between family members and even a hotel manager about the differences between Chinese people and Americans. Is America a better country to live in? Are people too individualistic in the West? Should the expats living in America, including Billi’s parents, still consider themselves Chinese?
These compelling discussions then pool in moments of melancholy. The camera holds on Nainai as she waits for another scan, the stillness enveloped by Alex Weston’s beautifully meditative choral and violin soundtrack. Wang’s use of slow motion allows us to feel Billi’s affecting experience in China, the world moving differently around her. The impressive team is sealed by cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, whose delicate, crisp canvas pops with color from neon billboards, often evoking Japan-set Lost in Translation.
Then we ease into lightness once more, such as the family deciding to hold a wedding reception as an excuse to bring everyone together, even though the couple involved have only been dating for three months (“Let’s say a year,” everyone decides).
Nainai, played by an extraordinary Zhao Shuzhen in her film debut, throws herself into wedding preparations with dauntless energy. She affectionately calls Billi “Stupid Girl” and supports and encourages her when others critique her for being 30 and unmarried. Nainai occasionally comes across as rude or harsh, but as we continue to spend time with her, her cheerfulness and vitality become infectious.
Wang’s script, drawn from real camcorder tapes of her own trip to China, captures an authenticity that brushes with the profoundly elegant. Nainai explains she still wants to live with her bumbling husband because he’s a “live body.” It means when she sees shadows, at least they’re not all her own.
While The Farewell announces Wang and Zhao’s talent, its other stunning revelation is Awkwafina. Born Nora Lum, the actress, comedian, TV host and rapper famous for her song “My Vag,” is completely authentic as Billi, whose heart you can feel beating achingly through her strained attempts to keep smiling.
A bird that somehow gets trapped both inside Billi’s New York apartment and her hotel room in China represents her need to get lift off with her life. The Farewell is an important exploration of the cultural limbo many Chinese-born Americans find themselves in, but its humor and heart will reach all.
The Farewell arrives Sept. 5 in Australia, Sept. 20 in the UK, and is available for preorder on iTunes.