Anyone with a large Chinese family going back for generations will probably appreciate much about the one depicted in tender detail in The Farewell, director Lulu Wang’s sweet and understated second film. For everyone else, Awkwafina’s performance is a great gateway. The rapper-turned-actress’ best performance yet takes a sharp turn away from her zany supporting roles for a restrained and utterly credible portrait of cross-cultural frustrations. Which is a large part of this movie’s richness, being in how it shows us the importance of our differences. The premise itself of The Farewell might be confusing to Americans, but for Wang, that confusion is the point. As we are watching a Chinese-American grappling with the traditionalism of her past and its impact on the future, turning cultural expectations on their head, Wang brings a sweet, moving, tender story of family bonds.
Billie (Awkwafina) lives in New York City with her mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma) but keeps in touch with her beloved grandma or Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in China. When Nai Nai is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and only three months to live, the family goes to visit Nai Nai and pay their respects under the front of attending a wedding for Billi’s cousin (Chen Han). The family agree that Nai Nai is not to be told her diagnosis as it should be the family’s burden to deal with this bad news, not Nai Nai’s (a common a tradition to do so in China). As Billi wrestles with the difficulty of keeping this news a secret from someone she loves, she gains a better understanding of her family’s beliefs and Chinese culture. Wang, who’s drawing the story from her own experience, gives her characters and her audience plenty of room to disagree. Billi, Wang’s onscreen alter ego, clearly disapproves of the whole charade, and she generates much of the story’s conflict by trying to persuade her relatives to come clean with Nai Nai. They in turn scold her for being so self-centered, so hopelessly American.
In many ways, The Farewell is most remarkable for what doesn’t happen. Sidestepping the temptations of broad farce or melodrama, Wang creates a place of low-key observational realism, dispensing her sympathies and teasing out emotional subtleties with a graceful, assured hand. The wry comic distance she maintains from her characters speak to a filmmaker who is not only personally invested in her material but deeply at ease with it. Wang immerses us in the warm, comforting intimacy of a Chinese family gathering where a quickly offered meat pie or an affectionate slap on the bottom is the easiest way to say “I love you.” And despite her declining health, Nai Nai leaves us no doubt about who’s in charge.
While a few of its talkier moments tend to meander off, The Farewell develops a cumulative impact, as Billi jokes, argues, and probes her relatives to rationalize their behavior as she revisits her rocky childhood, realizing that the lie she’s now complicit in speaks to a broader lack of transparency that has impacted her adult life. While these heavier questions bubble up, her endearing grandmother provides a constant source of comic relief, cheerily amusing Billi and reorienting her perspective on the current dilemma. Wang’s screenplay allows a lot of Billi’s psychological challenges to unfold as internal processes, allowing Awkwafina to access previously unseen depths; she was a scene-stealer in both Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight. Here, though, she transforms into a complex embodiment of Chinese-American identity as the movie gives her room to explore.
From a distance, The Farewell has a moment or two that feels a little scattered or a little drawn out. And a majority of the clashes that play out over the course of this family get-together are really nothing new. You might recognize echoes of movies like Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, or even the aforementioned and more recent Crazy Rich Asians. But the path that Wang clears through this well-trod territory is very much her own. A less clear-eyed or wise sensibility might have sent The Farewell hurtling into a self-centered and sentimental area, rather than steering it toward an ending as graceful and moving as it is ingeniously open-ended.
The Farewell is the type of movie that I simply like seeing, as it provides a look at other cultures and challenges our preconceived notions of how families should behave. As the movie concludes you’ll emerge from it thinking of Nai Nai, but you may also be thinking about Billi’s parents and their tough but resilient marriage, or about a contemporary China that is changing more quickly than its identically clustered high-rise developments can keep up with. More than anything you are likely to admire just how ably Lulu Wang subverts her premise and its ostensible limitations. She lets us take a view at an East/West divide at how families relate to each other. Wang isn’t trying to say that one is better than the other, but that there’s value in the difference, and that while behaviors may differ, the love is unmistakable. A warm, tender melancholic charmer, The Farewell weaves tranquil moments of sincerity to bursts of wry humor, all while grappling with the impacts of traditionalism.