Dir: Lulu Wang. Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, and Jiang Yongbo. PG cert, 100 mins
The Farewell rips your heart out of your chest. Then it hands it back to you, wrapped gently in cotton wool. Lulu Wang’s second feature is a revelatory one. Bolstered by powerhouse distributor A24, known otherwise as the connoisseurs of cinematic cool, it arrives with all the fanfare accorded to a major new talent. In the US, it had a record-breaking run, earning a higher per-theatre average than Avengers: Endgame. The buzz is well deserved. Packaged up in all the intricacies of immigrant identity and family politics, The Farewell is a comedy of warmth and bracing honesty. Simply put, it’s one of the best films of the year.
This isn’t the first time Wang’s told this story, which is rooted deep in her own experiences. Back in 2016, on NPR’s podcast This American Life, the writer-director recounted a trip to China to say goodbye to her terminally ill grandmother. Her family, however, had issued strict instructions that no one discuss the disease around her. She hadn’t been told about the stage-four cancer ravaging her body. Her X-ray results were waved off as showing only “benign shadows”. It’s a common practice in Chinese families, since it’s believed the stress of the diagnosis may only worsen a person’s condition. Instead, everyone came together under the pretence that they were celebrating her grandson’s wedding. Tears had to be stifled under smiles and laughter, so as not to give the game away.
Wang’s avatar here is Billi, a Brooklyn-based writer who’s entered her thirties with no money and no prospects. She’s played by Awkwafina, who up until now has been known for playing the dopey weirdo – in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 – or rapping about “queefing like a G, b***h”. In The Farewell, she strips herself down emotionally in a way that feels startling. She’s a woman lost at sea, about to lose the only thing that tethered her to the past. Billi emigrated with her parents from Changchun, in northeastern China, to New York when she was six years old. She still phones her paternal grandmother (or, in Mandarin, her nai nai) on a regular basis. But when Billi’s parents tell her the bad news, they also suggest she stay at home, since she’s too Americanised and thus too emotionally earnest – she’s bound to ruin the plan. Billi hops on a plane anyway.
The trip crushes her and rebuilds her in a thousand ways. Driving around Changchun, she’s shocked by the changed skyline, as blocks of new apartments slowly eradicate every trace of her childhood. When she’s finally faced with Nai Nai, her face contorts into a snapshot of combusting grief. She’s trying so hard not to weep, she looks physically in pain. Her grandmother just shrugs and blames it on the jet lag. Cornering her parents, Billi demands to know why everyone seems so content to hide their grief. Her mother snaps back: if she doesn’t cry, does that automatically mean she doesn’t care?
While there’s been no shortage of culture-clash comedies, they’ve more often than not focused on the purely superficial. Wang goes straight for the messy stuff – there’s no thornier subject than death, after all. It rears its head in myriad ways, but always with the same patterns of devastation. No family goes unaffected. Billi balks at the idea of keeping Nai Nai’s illness a secret, considering it’d be illegal to do so in the US, but Wang gives her the space to wrestle with that impulse, and where it comes from. Her relatives see it as implicit to the selfishness of Western lifestyles. “It’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her,” her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) says. Their conversations are strained by all the unspoken tension between them, but they’re also a family who loves each other too much to scream and shout. When Billi finally lets it all out, it’s heart-wrenching to watch.
We also get a glimpse of what it’s like for Haibin, who moved to Japan several decades ago. It’s a country that’s geographically much closer, but still culturally distinct enough that he’s made to feel like an outsider. It’s his son, Hao Hao (Chen Han), who’s been roped into marrying Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), his Japanese girlfriend of three months. We never quite find out how that came about, but both bride and groom seem as bewildered as Billi. Aiko can barely speak Mandarin, so she mainly communicates in encouraging smiles and the vague sense that she might bolt out the door in a panic in any given moment.
The Farewell is one of those rare and precious comedies that is as hilarious as it is tragic. It’s humanity, encompassed. Never is this more evident than when the family visit the gravesite of Nai Nai’s husband. Surrounded by the wails of paid mourners, they offer a few gifts – mainly snacks and alcohol. Billi’s father pulls out a cigarette, but Nai Nai insists he’d quit. “Let the man smoke, he’s already dead. What else can happen?” Haibin retorts. It’s hard to tell how closely Wang is modelling these characters on her own family, but each is beautifully sketched out, regardless of how much screen time they have.
At the centre of all things, of course, is Nai Nai. She is the sun at the centre of her own solar system, and in many ways the ultimate matriarch: hustling around town, prepping for a wedding she insists can’t look cheap, nagging Billi about her weight and diet, and orchestrating the many gargantuan family dinners. Billi might be experiencing the worst cultural whiplash of her life – something Wang pointedly never offers a solution to – but it’s her love for this formidable woman that always manages to pull her through.
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