A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies. (IMDb)
It may still be a little early in the year to start praising any film as the one of the “best of 2019”, but Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is just that good. It’s a lovely and emotional film that tells a story that is both culturally specific and universally relatable. It’s directed with skill and boasts an excellent screenplay that is balanced when it comes to how funny and how dramatic it is. The story it tells is based on Wang’s real experience and may be a familiar tale to anyone who listens to the This American Life podcast, where it has previously been told. Wang has talked about her viewpoint as “an immigrant and straddling two cultures” and it’s something that is clear here in the character of Billi (Awkwafina). She’s a Chinese-American writer who is both close to her grandmother back in China and building a career in America, where her parents moved when she was much younger. The news of a devastating diagnosis for her grandmother (or Nai Nai, a term for ‘paternal grandmother’ in Mandarin) brings her and her family back to China, but not in the way you might expect.
Based on an actual lie
Wang based this film on her own grandmother’s illness and the way that her family reacted to the news. In the film, Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and is given only a few months left to live. But in China, it’s not uncommon for bad news to be delivered to a family member before the person themselves. In this case, Nai Nai’s diagnosis is given to her sister (Lu Hong), who decides to lie and tell her that the results came back as “benign shadows” and that she’ll be fine. When the rest of the family (everyone except Nai Nai) is given the news, they all decide to come to China to see Nai Nai one last time. They concoct a scheme involving a fake wedding for Hao Hao (Chen Han), Billi’s cousin, in order to get the whole family back in the same place without giving up the lie. It’s both upsetting and genuinely incredibly funny. All the more so because it’s based on events that really happened.
Both a specific and relatable family drama
If you’d only previously known Awkwafina for her comedic work (particularly as a scene-stealer in last year’s great rom-com Crazy Rich Asians), then you may well be shocked and surprised at just how well she handles the dramatic work involved in this film. Her performance is remarkable and feels really honest and compelling, and she’s not the only one who is impressive. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin are brilliant as Billi’s parents, Jiang Yongbo is great as her uncle, and Lu Hong shines as Little Nai Nai (Nai Nai’s sister). Above all, though, Zhao Shuzhen’s portrayal of Nai Nai is what makes the film work so wonderfully. She’s got a rich personality and feels like a character we get to know, rather than just a symbol for the poor old grandmother who is being lied to by her entire family. In particular, her dynamic with Billi is a big part of what makes the film so emotional and touching, but also something that contributes heavily towards it being so funny and charming. The particulars of the story may not be relatable for those that don’t know the cultural nuances, but the characters and people in the tale definitely feel real and authentic.
The power of saying no
As a personal story for Lulu Wang, it was important that she retained control over as many aspects of The Farewell as she could. And it’s evident that as the writer and director of this film, she really did. It has an outstanding screenplay and several smart and powerful directorial choices. Wang’s story is quite specific to the Asian American experience, and her unwillingness to tweak it or make it more commercial is what has made it so special. She’s said the journey to getting the film made taught her “the power of saying no” as financiers suggested clumsily adding in “a prominent white character” and others attempted to compromise her vision. But the story eventually found life as an excellent segment of the This American Life podcast, and her vision was financed the way she’d pictured soon afterwards. Wang’s steadfast belief in the way this story needed to be told is clear and, if tweaks — like changing much of the language from Mandarin or not allowing her full control over casting — had been made, it’s unlikely this would feel as genuine and unique as it does.
This is a beautiful and heartwarming film, with a hilarious and touching screenplay and superb performances. It’s resonant and charming, and one of the year’s best films so far.