How do you say goodbye to someone without letting them know you’re saying goodbye? That’s the conundrum at the center of The Farewell, the new movie (and Sundance sensation) from writer-director Lulu Wang. This seemingly cruel absurdity is one she also faced in real life. As she first recounted in her 2016 story for This American Life, a few years ago, her beloved grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when she traveled to China to see her one last time, she was pressured by her parents and her extended family not to mention the illness. The clan decided that it was better not to tell the grandmother—in the movie, a character warns that if the cancer won’t kill her, the fear of it will. The lie quickly metastasized. Another grandchild, whose family had immigrated to Japan, got talked into mounting a quickie wedding in China so the grandmother’s relatives would have an excuse for a reunion. From the outside, such subterfuge looks like the worst kind of paternalism. But Wang invites audiences to view her family’s decision from the inside—and has her stand-in, Billi (Awkwafina, stepping confidently into her first leading role and showing she can be much more than the comic relief), discover and rediscover new ways to express love.
As a family portrait, The Farewell is full of lovingly sketched complex characters and delicately layered interpersonal dynamics. But it’s equally powerful as a travelogue about visiting one’s birth country—a place that, in this case, is simultaneously primally familiar and jarringly foreign, where Billi can’t help driving herself crazy wondering what lives she might have led there if she and her parents had never left. If last year’s Crazy Rich Asians was an affirmation of Asian American identity as distinct from the cultures of the Old World, The Farewell focuses on Billi’s diaspora blues, of not feeling entirely at home in either Asia or America. Wang’s direction is mostly understated, but her film includes some sublimely composed images that suggest the tacky caprices, the oases of beauty, and the matter-of-fact ordinariness of contemporary Chinese life. The subject matter is inevitably somber, but the picture is also mischievously funny. Wang pirouettes along some tonal hairpins—in one scene, I guffawed in the midst of wracking sobs.
East Asians tend to be presented, and to present ourselves, as a stoic, unaffectionate lot. But The Farewell is stuffed to the brim with visions of us caring, touching, and looking after each other, sometimes in ways that don’t overlap with Western customs. Billi’s Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), or grandmother, grabs her granddaughter’s “round little butt” at the family table.
Nai Nai also holds Billi’s hands during conversations and brings food to the young woman’s mouth with her chopsticks. At the heart of the drama lies a fundamental disagreement about how best to love a family member. (As one scene illustrates, probably not via paid mourners, who all but rend their garments at gravesites in front of more subdued relatives.)
While all of this affection may go against type, The Farewell is also chockablock with sharply observed cultural specificities, many of which speak to Billi’s sense of dislocation, like being scolded by her uncle (Jiang Yongbo) not to interfere with the excessive drinking of her father (Tzi Ma) or having a doctor suddenly want to practice his English skills on her while in the middle of her grandmother’s consultation. These specificities gradually accrete into a totality. By the end of the film, Billi still may not concur with the decision to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her condition, but she realizes that the decision is in line with a worldview that looks at matters of health and suffering, and thus care, in different but internally logical and cohesive ways. Sometimes love looks a lot like betrayal, but only if you can’t see the whole picture.
Billi’s journey is a poignant but largely silent one, which is why I spent much of The Farewell wondering how her cousin (Chen Han), and his extremely accommodating girlfriend of three months (Aoi Mizuhara), felt about their slapped-together wedding banquet. (I’d happily watch a reinterpretation of the plot from their point of view.) But that bit of underdevelopment throws into relief how meticulously the other characters are shaded. Billi’s prickly mother (Diana Lin) lobs barbs at her daughter until she abruptly turns them on other family members in her daughter’s defense. (Second-generation immigrants who’ve returned to the countries of their ethnic origin with their parents have probably also witnessed the game of shifting allegiances, familial and national, many conversations become.) Nai Nai’s sons are overwhelmed with remorse that by leaving China they deprived their mother of spending her final decades with her children and grandchildren. Yet neither can seem to imagine having stayed in their homeland. With three languages between them, members of the clan are sometimes overwhelmed by awkwardness and frustratingly stuck exchanging polite nods and pleasantries.
But the film’s most wondrous character is Nai Nai, who once served in the army, took a bullet in wartime, endlessly dotes on Billi, and … isn’t always the nicest person to be around. She makes unkind and discriminatory assumptions about the Japanese bride-to-be, whom she doesn’t speak to and doesn’t bother getting to know, and the most she will say about her live-in boyfriend, whom she calls Mr. Li, is that he’s “a live body in the house.” (Worse, it’s in knowing earshot of him.) She can be vain, highhanded, and myopic. Ultimately, she becomes a person whose death will be worth grieving not because she’s good but because she’s human. The Farewell makes it hard to say goodbye.