As an Asian viewer, I knowingly smiled when I saw the heroine of “The Farewell” go inside her dear grandmother’s residence, only to see it full of family members. When I was young, I routinely visited the house of my mother’s eldest brother along with many other relatives. I still fondly remember those lively domestic moments with them, although I usually preferred to read books in the corner as your average nerdy kid. Like the family in the film, my relatives often interacted enthusiastically as hours leisurely went by. It’s a shame that we don’t gather together anymore, due to a petty feud involved with money not long after the death of my mother’s eldest brother.
In the beginning of Lulu Wang’s film, she establishes the affectionate relationship between Billi Wang (Awkwafina) and her grandmother, who is usually called “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen). Although she has lived with her parents for more than 25 years in the U.S. since they left their hometown Changchun, China, Billi still remains close to her grandmother, and their mutual affection is apparent. Billi and Nai Nai, who is still living in Changchun, talk on the phone at the beginning of the film. Billi’s current life in New York City has not gone as well as she wanted, but she pretends that everything is alright because she does not want to make her dear grandmother worry, and Nai Nai does not tell Billi anything about her latest medical examination because she does not want any fuss about that.
However, not long after speaking with her grandmother, Billi learns from her parents that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Although it’s quite possible that Nai Nai will die within a few months, Billi’s parents and the other family members including Nai Nai’s younger sister have already decided that they should not tell anything about that to Nai Nai, because they want Nai Nai to live her remaining life as peacefully and painlessly as possible. While Nai Nai is told that she is healthy as usual, her younger sister and other family members hasten the wedding of Billi’s male cousin and his fiancée, and this ceremony will function as a convenient excuse for them and other relatives and friends to come and see Nai together for the last time.
Despite her parents telling her not to because she may not keep the secret well, Billi eventually arrives in Changchun. Her unexpected arrival certainly causes some nervousness among her parents and other family members, but Nai Nai warmly greets her dear granddaughter as before, and that makes Billi feel even more conflicted. She manages to hide her growing grief from Nai Nai, but she also wonders more whether Nai Nai deserves to know the truth. That naturally generates tension between her and the other family members, who firmly believe that, like any other Chinese family under such a circumstance, they must dutifully carry grief and other hard emotional burdens till that inevitable point when the truth cannot be hidden from Nai Nai any longer.
Never hurrying itself at all, the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Lulu Wang, which is inspired by her real-life family story, slowly moves from one episodic moment to another, bringing spirit and humanity to its story and characters. Still the family matriarch, Nai Nai busily and happily occupies herself in the preparation for the upcoming wedding, and no one dares to stop her from doing that. There is a humorous scene where she becomes quite pissed about a minor mistake in the meal to be served to the wedding guests. We also get a small funny moment involving the groom and his bride, who do love each other but cannot help but feel very awkward being pushed toward into a wedding which is actually not meant for them.
We gradually come to know more about not only Billi and Nai Nai but also their family members. While Billi’s father and his older brother, who also left China and has settled in Japan, feel guilty about not often being there for their mother, Billi’s mother turns out to have her own emotional issues, and Billi muses more on the remaining generation gap between her and her parents. She and her parents do love and care about each other, but there are still some unresolved feelings between them, and that later leads to a small but powerful moment between her and her mother.
Nevertheless, the movie does not let itself get mired in sadness and misery, constantly exuding humor and warmth, and its main pleasure comes from how deftly it goes back and forth between comedy and drama. As reflected by the frequent use of static wide shots throughout the film, the movie is mostly as calm and serene as those intimate family drama films of Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, but it does not hesitate from overtly comic moments such as a key scene where Billi and her family members visit the tomb of her deceased grandfather, which strikingly and hilariously opens with the wailing from some other family visiting the cemetery. That wailing may be a genuine expression of grief, but it also looks rather silly and perfunctory. I am reminded of what I observed from a number of family funerals I attended, which felt like a superficial contest of crying and wailing around the time of burial or cremation.
In the end, everything in the story culminates with the wedding ceremony, but Wang wisely avoids cheap sentimentality, tactfully rolling her story and characters along the whole gamut of emotions. Regardless of how many wedding guests actually know about Nai Nai’s terminal illness, Nai Nai and other family members around her cannot help but get swept into the rapturous mood of the wedding.
As the beating heart of the film, Awkwafina, who previously drew our attention via her colorful supporting performances in “Ocean’s Eight” (2018) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), demonstrates a more serious side of her talent. Dialing down her comic personality, she skillfully handles a swirling mix of conflicting emotions and thoughts barely kept behind her restrained appearance, and that’s the main reason why her character’s few occasions of emotional outbursts in the film are quite shattering.
Awkwafina’s sensitive low-key performance makes an effective contrast with the warm and open-hearted appearance of Zhao Shuzhen, who alternatively delights and saddens us as the wise and gentle soul of the story. As we get to know more of Nai Nai, we come to care more about this plucky old lady who is always forthright in her no-nonsense attitude, while also wondering whether she knows more than she lets on. Diligently maintaining her graceful presence, Zhao subtly conveys to us that nagging possibility without hinting anything at all, though I think Wang shows a little too much to us around the end of the story.
Along with Awkwafina and Zhao, the other main cast members present a vivid, realistic portrayal of family members who have known each other for a long time. Tzi Ma and Jiang Yongbo, who respectively play Billi’s father and his older brother, are especially good when their characters reveal their own grief and regret in private. Diana Lin, who plays Billi’s mother, also gives a solid performance as a woman who is understandably calmer about the family matter than others around her.
“The Farewell” is also quite insightful and poignant in its thoughtful handling of intimate subjects. As far as I remember, such a thing happened to me only in case of a very small number of good movies including the Japanese film “Departures” (2008). That film also incidentally deals with death and saying goodbye to loved ones and, believe me, did the very same thing to the audiences around me when it was shown at the 2010 Ebertfest.
Around the end of last year, I chose “The Farewell” as my second favorite film of that year after “Parasite” (2019), and I really wished that it would be shown at the 2020 Ebertfest. It later turned out that it was actually selected along with several other good films, but, alas, the festival was canceled along with many other notable film festivals in the U.S. due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Considering how things have been getting worse day by day in the U.S., I am not even sure whether the 2021 Ebertfest is possible, but I sincerely hope that the movie will be shown at the Virginia Theater someday.