The first thing you see in Lulu Wang’s touching, entertaining The Farewell is a card that reads, “Based On An Actual Lie”. Some of my favorite films and shows have explored the cost of lies, including All The President’s Men, Election, and the recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl. Wang’s film, while firmly in the popular entertainment camp, explores death and a conspiracy of lies. Still, it remains a comedic drama despite its somewhat dark premise.
Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) stars as Billi, a Chinese-American writer who lives a lonely, broke existence in New York. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) live nearby but seem worlds apart from their struggling daughter. Billi seems closest to her Grandmother called Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), who lives in China and doesn’t know she’s due to die from lung cancer in a few months. The family agrees that it’s better that she remains ignorant of her prognosis. Instead, they cook up a premature wedding of a cousin as an excuse to gather in China to say their goodbyes. Nobody wants Billi to come, however, because she’s much less capable of hiding her emotions than the rest, thus potentially blowing their ruse.
It’s a fine setup for a comedy of errors, but Wang, who based the film on her own experiences, digs deeper. She’s interested in family dynamics, cultural differences, and that intangible quality which brings people together. Filmed mostly in Wang’s hometown of Changchun, a sprawling industrial metropolis of over 7million people in Northeastern China, we enter the city through Billi’s eyes as her cab takes her past one giant Communist bloc apartment building after another. Despite the drab exteriors, life bustles inside Nai Nai’s home filled with her sister, Little Nai Nai (a very funny Hong Lu), her self-involved partner, and may others. Something always seems to be cooking on the stove and Nai Nai keeps active by attending medical appointments, chatting lovingly on the phone with her granddaughter, climbing her apartment stairs, or loudly practicing Tai Chi.
When Billi arrives unannounced, the rest of the family, including her parents, brace themselves for their planned coverup to go awry. Clearly saddened by the impending death, Billi blames it on jet lag and checks into a nearby hotel. It’s here where we meet a bellhop who can’t stop asking Billi about life in America. Insisting it’s different, not better or worse, the film’s themes crystallize here, showing a culture that sees the value in lies. They get us through our tough days. They sometimes make things easier, or make people feel good. We’re not so different in the West, especially nowadays. A standout scene between Billi and her Uncle features him hammering home the need for her to keep up the deception, the repetition of their back and forth creating a wonderfully absurdist tone. An earlier joke about bracing someone for a fall pays dividends throughout as well.
The plot of the film remains quite simple. Everything leads up to the wedding, a terrific, extended Second Act set piece in which many drink away their problems, leaving the audience concerned if anyone will spill the beans. While moodier, more textured, and with something new to say, The Farewell sits firmly in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding camp. It resists political commentary, keeping its focus on a crowd-pleasing sensibility.
Awkwafina, in her first leading role, brings a loose charm and a surprising amount of warmth to the film. I’ve often felt that comedians make great dramatic actors since their humor usually comes from trauma. Awkwafina certainly has the goods and made me care about her predicament. Shuzhen Zhao works beautifully with her, giving us a Grandmother full of life, opinions, and an unpredictability. Many think of life in China as an Orwellian existence, yet she shows us a vibrant, exciting side to it. I think I’d like to hang with Nai Nai for as long as possible. This duo makes us believe in the power of such relationships. Nai Nai passes something along to her Billi, which gives us its literally breathtaking final moment. The Farewell won’t change cinematic language, but by opening us up to a clash of cultures we don’t often get to see and by showing us the beauty of a lie, it just may change you.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Farewell gets a 0 out of 50. For a brief moment, I was convinced the budding groom would turn out to be gay. He has all of these coded moments which signify a closeted character: uncomfortable in his own skin, drinking to excess, lack of chemistry with his intended, and sure, stereotypes be damned, a little flip in his hair, but, alas, it remains unexplored. They can’t all be Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, now can they?
By Glenn Gaylord
The Farewell is in US cinemas now and opens in the UK 11th October 2019.