Secrets and lies form a huge part of The Farewell, the new film from writer-director Lulu Wang. In particular, it’s about the lies we tell the people we love to avoid hurting their feelings. For instance, Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina) is avoiding telling her family that she hasn’t won a prestigious fellowship and she’s facing eviction from her New York apartment.
But when Billi discovers that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she’s outraged when, in keeping with longstanding cultural traditions, the family decides not to tell their beloved matriarch that she’s got about three weeks left to live.
Instead, they’re planning a big family wedding for her cousin (who’s only been dating his new fiancée for a matter of months) as a way of bringing all their relatives together to spend time with Nai Nai before she passes. Going against her parents’ advice to stay in New York, Billi returns to China too, but is expressly forbidden from revealing the truth, but is it a secret she can keep?
Reviewers often tout films like these as “universal” stories, as if to say, “these characters are different to us, but, like, we get it!” But on the contrary, what’s so enjoyable about this and last year’s Crazy Rich Asians (another American-produced film that features a predominantly Asian-American cast) is their cultural specificity. The truth is, when you watch films that aren’t expressly about your experience and culture, you’ll usually learn something.
If this film had been produced in China, you could imagine some Not-A24 studio snapping up the rights and making an American-language version, shredding the cultural and institutional debate at its heart to get at the sitcom-level nugget of the premise. But this is yet another film that gives the lie to the arse-scratching internet chunter about “pointless” or “token” diversity in Hollywood. This is a film written and directed by an Asian-American woman and it’s the most strikingly original American film of the year.
Over its 100-minute running time, it’s a film that makes the most of every second with the central family, just as they intend to do with Nai Nai. Although the pace is very measured, there’s not a wasted moment in Wang’s tightly written script. Where the question of individualism vs collectivism is asked throughout the film, she seems to take the latter approach in making every scene, whether funny or sad, belong to the whole.
In her most dramatic role to date, Awkwafina is superb as Billi. Having moved abroad when she was very young, she’s more integrated into America than any other member of her family, and there’s an inherent emotional conflict in the way that she bridges Eastern and Western culture, as well as in keeping her own fibs going. Whether she’s being tearful or defiant, the rapper-turned-actress gives a revelatory performance.
Although Oscar talk may be a bit premature for the superb cast, (which includes expertly drawn performances from Diana Lin, Tzi Ma, and Jiang Yongbo) there’s surely an absolutely nailed-on Best Supporting Actress nomination in the pipeline for Zhao Shuzhen.
She plays the wisest, most lovable screen gran we’ve seen in yonks. Her role isn’t merely to prop up the understated farce elements – she’s optimistic, but also far cleverer than most of the other heads around her, which is seemingly why so many of them feel it’s imperative to avoid giving her any hint.
This high-wire act between comedy and pathos only gets more impressive as it goes on, and it’s exemplified every time the family are all together, whether it’s for an uncomfortable dinner table discussion or a hilarious visit to a cemetery. In other scenes, Wang shows a knack for rooting the most dramatic exchanges in everyday moments, as in the scene where Billi and her mother help the bride-to-be find a missing earring.
It’s a rare film that has the power to make you laugh, cry, and laugh again as deftly as this does, but for all of the early awards buzz, it’s never showy with it. There’s a reason why they say still waters run deep, and while The Farewell makes for oddly relaxing viewing, it offers a singularly emotional insight into its unique story.
The Farewell is out in UK cinemas on 20 September.