[Note: This film presented initially during the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival]
Every family is a little different, so many will tell say time and again. In size, shape, strength, race, a multitude of criteria. But of course, the ways we differ can’t stack well against those we’re similarly unified by. The best families will have to lie to protect those they love, to withhold valuable information, to hide true feelings but maintain love, and honest admiration. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is perhaps the best example of a family unafraid to celebrate their legacy, albeit cutting a few corners to reach the intended destination.
And that journey starts with Billi (the actress/rapper known simply as Awkwafina), a confident Chinese-American immigrant duking it out with the Big Apple. As far back as she could remember, all the way to her childhood in Changchun, some of her fondest childhood memories incorporate a close, lasting bond with her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Shao). They would remain close even after the pair drifted further and further apart. But the dynamic takes a strong shift when the grand matriarch is hit with an aggressive form of lung cancer, leaving her with a very short stretch of time on the Earth. It’s a secret the rest of Billi’s family attempt to withhold, even as the entire clan congregates back home for a week to mark the occasion of a cousin’s wedding, one pulled together last-minute, and with few expenses made. In reality, it’s a disguise for a final farewell for dear Nai Nai.
Billi has to push her way onto the invite list, after a light resistance from the mom and dad (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin), but once in, her own beliefs are tested, whether she could fall in line with the web of lies, or if she’ll crack in isolation against a lack of memories. The relationship she and Nai Nai, that’s outlasted years; the rapid industrial change of her homeland post-childhood, not so much. It’s half culture-clash, half ethical scandal that’s destined to unfurl thread by thread if not everyone is smiling for the sake of a dying relative eager to have one last hurrah, even if she’s not exactly aware of it being such.
Miss Wang, whose efforts as a writer/director first garnered major attention with 2014’s Posthumous, tries her hand at a purely absurdist approach to a dark family conflict, where the humor reluctantly falls on every meticulous detail bouncing off-rail. Each family member brings in their set of quirks, awkward misnomers, or buzzwords to define their unique success story. Billi just happens to be the least secure of them all, the rest of her family sees her as the spitting image of an American success story, but she couldn’t be further away. It’s a finitely complex role which Awkwafina, whose major screen debut as the cocky bestie in last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians, attacks with instant charm, brutal humility, and so little shame for her character’s Americanization. With so little retained Mandarin, and fuzzy memories waiting to be unlocked, her own tangled net of deception could perhaps be the only thing to counteract a badly unified front.
Despite the possible ethical quandary, Wang heeds no mind, blazing through a delicate dance of honoring a life, but not making it overly saddening. It is indeed a celebration, a party, a cultural get-together, but in no way is it syrupy, sickly sweet. There’s that sense of looming dread like we don’t wish to say our goodbyes while paying our respects; in the case of Nai Nai, she’s an unbearably pushy human being looking out for everyone’s best interests even at her weakest, and the last thing she’d want to sense is that darkness everyone’s intentionally stifling. Zhao, portraying the grandmother, channels her elder experience to a heightened advantage, not holding anything back amid the foreseen charade.
Naturally, there are times when characters will struggle to not break down, and some shots often share that in mere actions, but not with words. When words are deliberately necessary, it’s with one small, important caveat. The dialogue shifts between English and Mandarin, and regardless of a healthy subtitle translation, some jokes, some minor references will easily fly over some viewer’s heads, others could potentially laugh their heads off. Other directors would potentially see that as a daunting task; Wang’s direction mutes that inner doubt, like many of us, ought to in a crowded room of our own relatives, leaving the focus on a common element of togetherness, that’s as familiar as any large family meeting on Christmas or Thanksgiving. We’re just in it to share the time with people we know, despite our differences, foregoing our emotion to briefly live in the moment.
The Farewell feels as real as it does because of how close to our own lives it could be. Wang delicately dances around the idea of mixing heartbreak with false security, mourning with an appropriate dose of reflection, guilt with a healthy smidgeon of karmic realignment, all without diving too dark or growing too annoying. To try to stay strong yourself, especially in those final moments with the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” blasting throughout the theater, consider that fool’s play. To shed a tear would be the most genuine response imaginable, so don’t let that be a surprise. The Farewell is easily a feast for the heart, a career-defining film for a former rapper, and with nary an ounce of hesitation, one of the best films of 2019. If one can’t afford a real summer vacation, let this be the natural equivalent where there’s a great travel adventure and all of the feels that would follow. (4/5 Horns Up!)
The Farewell opens in Seattle this weekend (SIFF Cinema Egyptian and Bellevue’s Cinemark Lincoln Square 16), wide release August 2; rated PG for thematic material, brief language, and some smoking; 98 minutes.