'The Farewell' offers genuine, bittersweet family tale

  • Billi (Awkwafina), center, returns to China for a bittersweet family reunion in "The Farewell."

    Billi (Awkwafina), center, returns to China for a bittersweet family reunion in "The Farewell." Courtesy of A24

  • Billi (Awkwafina), center, returns to China when she finds out her grandmother is dying in "The Farewell."

    Billi (Awkwafina), center, returns to China when she finds out her grandmother is dying in "The Farewell." Courtesy of A24

 
By Lindsey Bahr
Associated Press
Posted7/18/2019 6:00 AM

"The Farewell" - ★ ★ ★ ★

The premise behind writer and director Lulu Wang's wonderful film "The Farewell" might be a little hard to accept for some audiences. A family collectively decides not to tell their grandmother that she has been diagnosed with lung cancer and has only three months to live. But wanting a chance to say goodbye, they arrange an elaborate ruse -- a wedding -- to get everyone together one last time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Far-fetched? For Americans it is. But as we learn in the first frame, the film is "Based on an actual lie."

Yes, Wang has mined her own family's wild true story to create a film that, despite its hyper-specific premise and setting, is a universally relatable and heart-rending portrait of how looming death affects a family. It's not emotionally manipulative or even necessarily a tear-jerker, although it's not a bad idea to bring along tissues. "The Farewell" is a stoic and honest representation of a flawed and lovely family coming to terms with the inevitable.

Awkwafina plays Billi, a 31-year-old New Yorker whose financial and career instability is starting to become more than just a temporary state of youth. She's rudderless and drifting.

Then her parents inform her that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao, who will win your heart in an instant) is dying in China. They're not going to tell Nai Nai, and instead are going to China under the pretense of her cousin getting married, even though he's only been dating his girlfriend for a few months.

Billi, who has been raised in the United States since she was 6, is appalled they'd even think of keeping the diagnosis from Nai Nai. Her mother Jian (Diana Lin) flatly explains, "There's a saying in China: When you get cancer, you die." Part of what kills you, she believes, is the fear.

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And so a plane ride later, everyone is together at Nai Nai's, cooking, eating, quarreling and planning this very real fake wedding. Her sons both left China and have lived most of their adult lives elsewhere -- Haiyan (Tzi Ma), Billi's father, in America, and the other in Japan. This family reunion is a long time coming.

Awkwafina, who made a name for herself with larger-than-life comedic performances, is quiet, understated and heartbreaking as Billi, who is grappling with the idea of impermanence while her own life stands still. She has maintained a sweet and close relationship with Nai Nai despite their physical distance. She's also the most outwardly sentimental of the bunch, so much so that her parents don't even want her to come to China to say goodbye.

The film is a heady, gentle and emotional journey, but Wang also packs the frame with layered conversation and funny background action. She makes the family dynamics feel universally familiar while also presenting an authentic portrait of China and Chinese families.

This is Wang's second feature. Her first, "Posthumous," was never released theatrically. But that fate is unlikely to befall her again after such an assured statement as "The Farewell."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

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Starring: Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Diana Lin, Tzi Ma

Directed by: Lulu Wang

Other: An A24 release. Rated PG. 98 minutes

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