The Farewell August 5, 2019
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
he Farewell (2019), Lulu Wang’s soulful autobiographical family drama, is, according to its introductory title card, “based on an actual lie.” It’s an interesting choice, on Wang's part, to say this over “based on a true story.” It’s a smart one, too. “Based on a true story” is a revelation that obliquely makes a promise a film cannot always fulfill: that what we’re about to see might appear so unbelievable that
there's no way it could be true. “Based on an actual lie” is funnier, darker. A get-a-load-of-what’s-about-to-happen-ism. It’s in line with the tasteful misalignment of the movie, which is about a family who knows that its matriarch — exclusively called Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), Mandarin for paternal grandmother — is dying of lung cancer. She has a few more months to live. Yet loved ones refuse to tell her, thinking the emotional toll will be too great. They’re surprisingly adept when it comes to keeping the secret intact. They nimbly intercept test-result deliveries; they cunningly brief doctors on the situation before Nai Nai can so much as set foot in the hospital.
The lie isn’t easy on anybody. But it especially bothers Nai Nai’s granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina, a revelation here), who thinks the conspiracy is both ethically deplorable and exceptionally cruel. Wouldn’t Nai Nai be angry to find out that everyone is working together to essentially put blinders over her eyes? No one, especially not her parents, is inclined to think so. Nai Nai was involved in a similar conspiracy, back in the day, affecting one of her elders after all. “It’s our duty to carry the emotional burden for her,” someone concludes.
The family uses a major event to massage the strains of the lie. Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), who lives in Japan, is getting married. But his clan forces him to move his wedding location to Nai Nai's home, Changchun, China, when the truth about her illness becomes common knowledge. They use his special day, fundamentally, as a ploy to allow everyone to get to see Nai Nai for the last time. Most don’t especially care that Hao Hao wants to be with his girlfriend of three months for forever. Nai Nai seems to suspect something is amiss at first. She herself has a couple of misgivings about Hao Hao’s impending ceremony, so why is everybody — especially Billi, who’s struggling to make it as a writer in New York City — acting like it’s such a big deal that they must drop everything for it? She eventually gets too caught up in the revelry of the imminent union to dwell.
Wang ably but patiently reveals what Nai Nai’s forthcoming death is evoking in her family. Everyone is inevitably reminded just how much they love her. Nai Nai — take-charge, honest, and funny in a warm, grandmotherly way — seems like the kind of person you cannot imagine saying a bad thing about. The worst thing she might do, perhaps, is dote a little too feverishly one afternoon, or, while speaking with Hao Hao’s caterer, complain that she doesn’t understand why on the main menu there’s crab rather than the lobster she’s positive she ordered.
But that they might soon live in a world without Nai Nai to turn to begets introspection. They might as well always be looking at themselves in the mirror. Suddenly the sept is inspired to think about how geographically distancing themselves from home has affected them. In the case of Billi and her parents, it’s constantly wondered whether it was a good idea to move to the west all those years ago. Billi, toward the end of the movie, evinces that part of the reason why she cannot bear the thought of losing Nai Nai has to do with the fact that she’s one of the few parts of her life that reminds her of the days when she was in happy in China — an experience that was taken away from her, in her view, at too early an age. They also wonder what they’ve taken for granted. While giving a speech at Hao Hao’s wedding, Nai Nai’s oldest son, played by Jiang Yongbo, breaks down into a particularly wrenching fit of tears, practically wondering aloud if he’s appreciated the “best mom ever” enough, and if he's done an effective job about showing his love.
Wang never dwells on the emotions of the characters in a way that feels studied, ostentatious. Her writing, paired with the rich and expressive performances, tends to be revealing because of what isn’t being shown but what we know is there. Certain lines of dialogue or brief emotional outbursts eerily suffice. So much can be summarized, even, by a masterful dinner scene in the middle of the movie. It's a masterwork in passive aggression that also indicates myriad neuroses and covered-up regrets.
Billi, our entry into the film and Wang’s stand-in, is without a doubt the movie’s most developed and sympathetic character. Awkafina, the rapper-actor who plays her, also possesses the sort of charisma that could make her lovable even if she wasn’t given much to do at all. But even the smallest of characters are thoughtfully sculpted; Wang is patently aware that sometimes even the subtlest twitch of a facial muscle can divulge a lot about someone.
Wang also (thankfully) never resorts to the type of high-wire comedy or treacly melodrama that tend to lodge themselves in most movies revolving around family dysfunction, either. She instead pulls off something much more difficult — and, therefore, has pulled off something more rewarding. She’s made a somber, thematically bristling movie that’s also consistently laugh-out-loud funny in a lifelike, stark fashion. It’s difficult to sense any construction in her writing.
The Farewell is technically a remake. In 2016, Wang, who had been working beforehand mostly as a documentary filmmaker, told the same story on the radio show This American Life. The experience was so fulfilling that, for a moment, she had a brief quarter-life crisis. Would she be happier if she abandoned directing, something that had been somewhat satisfying but more so obstacle-ridden so far, and pivot to radio? I felt grateful that she stuck to what she knew best once I finished The Farewell. Wang is a natural and empathetic storyteller. She makes her art attentively and completely — a seamstress who can miraculously make her product appear seamless. A