Writer-director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical “The Farewell” is, according to the writer-director, “Based on an Actual Lie.”
The sentimental dramedy tells the story of a struggling New York artist named Billi (Awkwafina) who learns that her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), back in China, has stage 4 lung cancer. The extended family has decided to keep this a secret from the elderly matriarch, opting instead to gather everyone together under the ruse of a quickie wedding to say their goodbyes. This doesn’t sit well with Billi who believes Nai Nai should know. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll realize that you’ve just seen the Best Film of 2019.
Awkwafina, the “My Vag” comedian-turned-actor from “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8,” is perfect in the role of the rebellious nose ring-wearing Billi, the black sheep of the family. It’s been a bad week for the struggling writer who’s just been turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship and now comes the news that her grandmother is terminally ill. Her father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), explains, “She doesn’t know so you can’t say anything, the family thinks it’s better not to tell her.” When Billi questions this decision, her mother, Jian (Diana Lin), chimes in, “Chinese people have saying. When people get cancer, they die.” The dry delivery and timing of the actors make the melancholy scene very funny, which is part of the film’s charm.
Hong Lu plays Billi’s great-aunt Little Nai Nai who is the first to be informed about her sister’s terminal illness. Instead of telling Nai Nai the truth, she informs her that the spots on her lungs are just benign shadows.
The film sparks the “Would you want to know?” debate as a scene late in the film explains that keeping a terminal diagnosis from a family member is an actual Chinese tradition that, in this case, has been passed down from one generation to the next. Why worry during the little time you have left? Of course, some people will argue that knowing gives you time to prepare and make amends.
Billi is at the center of this debate, which is exactly why the family wants to keep her away from the fake wedding of her cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Since Billi can’t hide her emotions, she asked to stay in America while the rest of the family convenes in Changchun, the actual hometown of Lulu Wang’s grandmother, where the film was shot.
Billi decides to buy her own ticket and much to her family’s surprise, she shows up unexpectedly at Nai Nai’s house with a sad face prompting grandma to ask, “What’s wrong?” Wang injects plenty of emotion in every scene as everyone pretends to be as happy as Nai Nai, who is excited to have her family back together for the joyous occasion.
People break down without warning and shrug it off as “tears of joy,” but the film never becomes depressing. Wang’s clever script is a great example of a perfectly balanced film where the comedy never becomes farce. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments that you’ll forget Nai Nai is terminally ill. But then Alex Weston’s haunting score kicks in to remind us, and yet the playful timing of the melancholy music is in itself quite amusing.
Wang should get acknowledged for Best Ensemble, and 75-year-old Shuzhen Zhao should receive an Oscar nomination.
The veteran Chinese actress is terrific as Nai Nai in a performance that becomes the film’s driving force. This is also the first lead role for Awkwafina, real name Nora Lum, whose acting abilities have matured at a rapid pace. She felt a connection to Wang’s script after being partially raised by her Chinese grandmother. Awkwafina’s natural intensity is a dynamic match for Shuzhen Zhao’s energetic performance.
“The Farewell” is based on Wang’s life with the filmmaker in the Billi role. The experience dealing with her grandmother’s illness led to an episode of the NPR radio show “This American Life” heard weekly on 500 stations. Soon after, Hollywood came calling, it became a Sundance hit and now you’ll have a chance to experience this beautiful and funny film as it heads into theaters this weekend.