Nai Nai (played by Zhao Shuzhen), the beloved grandmother of Billi (Awkwafina) in The Farewell, begins each morning with a set of exercises. She strides around outside her home in Changchun, China, pushing her hands out in front of her and belting out “Hah!” every few seconds. Doing this gets rid of the toxins, she assures her granddaughter, and as absurd as that might sound, it’s hard to doubt Nai Nai’s resoluteness. There’s been many a Hollywood culture-clash comedy released over the decades that would present a tradition like this just for a laugh—see how different things are across the Pacific! But Lulu Wang’s new film is different.
The Farewell uses traditions like this to ponder what makes us human, what shapes our sense of morality, and the ways those codes can vary even within an immediate family. The film is an obviously personal work from Wang, one “based on an actual lie” (as a title card proclaims) that she and her relatives told her grandmother (the director initially unfurled the story on an episode of This American Life). When Nai Nai (an affectionate Mandarin term for one’s paternal grandmother) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Billi’s family gathers around her to say goodbye without letting her know the end is near.
Avoiding any discussion of death is common in China—to spare your older relatives, and everyone around them, the trauma of hearing bad medical news. But for Billi, the plan is a fraud that she can’t believe her parents are helping to perpetrate. Wang places the audience in Billi’s shoes and, by extension, her own (the director was born in China and was 6 years old when her parents moved to the United States). But The Farewell is not a story about how Billi’s is the right point of view; the film carefully depicts each relative’s thinking, weaving an empathetic tapestry of a family that’s been spread around the world.
Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), weighs his guilt about lying to his mother against his understanding of the tradition that justifies it; Billi’s mother, Jian (Diana Lin), seeks to set aside older grudges against her mother-in-law; other relatives who have settled in Japan, or are upwardly mobile Chinese citizens, bring their own outlook to the situation. The action centers on the wedding of one of Billi’s cousins, the ostensible reason for the family gathering, which launches Nai Nai into action as she tries to organize a banquet that really exists only for her sake.
A zanier, more high-concept movie might have made the wedding Billi’s, perhaps giving her a fiancé or a love interest to be preoccupied with. But Wang’s script has the confidence to place her more in the role of an onlooker who absorbs both the family’s complex dynamics and the ways that Changchun has changed since she lived there as a little girl. Her relationship with Nai Nai is the most crucial bond in the film, and Billi’s honest attempt to come to terms with the lie her grandma is being told is the pivotal conflict.
Awkwafina, a comedian and rapper best known for ebullient supporting turns in blockbusters such as Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, is extraordinary in this against-type role. Billi is introverted, circumspect, and clearly somewhat haunted by immigrating at a young age; Awkwafina conveys that cautious malaise in every interaction she has with a relative, and in a painful monologue to her parents about the abruptness of the move they made to America. When she’s with Nai Nai, their rapport is natural, and their affection for each other profound; Zhao effortlessly exudes the self-assured, sometimes blinkered authority that comes with age.
I kept waiting for The Farewell to take a cutesy turn, to maybe lean on slapstick East-meets-West comedy or perhaps offer up a dramatic third-act twist. But this is a muted, evenly paced family movie, making it a rare film from the distributor A24 to be given a PG rating. Wang, who has made only one prior feature (the little-seen 2014 comedy Posthumous), distinguishes herself as a thrilling new voice in filmmaking by crafting one of the most sensitively told stories of the year.