Please say ‘Hello’ to ‘The Farewell’
Writer/Director: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, and Aoi Mizuhara
“The Farewell” – Writer/director Lulu Wang’s film is about family. For those who advocate to write about what you know, Wang took those words to heart. “The Farewell” is a personal story, and as noted in the opening credits, this particular life-chapter is based on an actual lie. Certainly, love is a common thread woven into most family tapestries, but lies – albeit in a reduced role – intertwine themselves into permanent lineages too.
Whether large or small, a designed falsehood between family members can aid both parties, but usually, a fib disproportionally benefits the giver or receiver.
For instance, Billi (Awkwafina), a late 20-something, is struggling financially in New York City. When her mom Jian (Diana Lin) asks about her bills, Billi dismisses the question by answering that things are fine. What’s more, Billi cannot quite find her career-footing, and her dreams of a fellowship dissipate into the ether via a rejection letter. Soon after, her dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma) innocently inquires about any fellowship-news, and Billi responds that she hasn’t heard yet. Both harmless lies benefit Billi, the giver, so she doesn’t have to summon the energy to speak out loud about these painful setbacks that already dance in her head on a continuous loop.
“The Farewell” centers around a big lie, but this one is designed to aid the receiver, Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). She lives across the Pacific in Changchun, a growing urban center that sits in the northeast corner of China. Her sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) receives terrible news – directly from a doctor - that Nai Nai contracted lung cancer and has three months to live. Rather than have Nai Nai stress about her fatal condition, the family decides to keep the news to themselves. In addition, they all travel to Changchun and plan a fake wedding for her grandson Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), as an excuse to see her one last time…and have an event to celebrate.
Wang’s picture is a glorious one to celebrate, as she perfectly captures the twisty nuances, frank discourse and natural measures of both anxiety and security that brew when extended families throw themselves together for a reunion, a wedding or a weekly meal.
Other than some establishing shots of Changchun and other glances of the city, most of the fermenting drama, humor and several, several enticing meals reside in the close quarters of living rooms, kitchens and restaurants. Everyone feels the weight of Nai Nai’s impending fate, but the trick is to sustain the pretenses and pleasantries, while she – without any idea – smiles, encourages everyone to eat, but also complains about Aiko.
And why not? Aiko is not part of the family just yet, right?
Well, Nai Nai’s intimate concoction of charm and blunt talk drive her magnetic charisma, and her everyday exchanges offer frequent opportunities for the audience to chuckle along with her. You might recognize traces or perhaps heaps of Nai Nai on your family tree, and Zhao adds a bubbly, irresistible grace that lights up the camera with a blankets of warm coziness, even though this matriarch feels equally free to launch orders at her faithful subjects.
Billi is Nai Nai’s most faithful subject. Growing up in the U.S., she’s also the “most” American and feels practically incapable of keeping this family secret. Billi is reliving Lulu Wang’s experience, and Awkwafina presents the film’s director as constantly shouldering this burden. She also wears grays, blacks and browns and the lightest – if any – makeup, as her physical presence matches her emotional demeanor.
Billi looks to blurt out her sorrow for about 88 minutes of the film’s 98-minute runtime, as Wang not only organically constructs universal anthropological themes into a uniquely personal narrative, but also into a stressful drama, in which the family’s righteous plan could be exposed at any moment.
Awkwafina and Zhao anchor the film through their deeply-relatable, soulful performances, and the supporting players flawlessly fit – including the real Little Nai Nai playing herself - as principled but also imperfect beings. Wang must have deeply searched through her swathes of memories, as her on-screen family argues, partners, laughs, eats, and shares spaces with meticulous detail during this specific time capsule. One that even fitting includes Lauryn Hill’s “Killing Me Softly”.
At one point, Nai Nai declares, “It’s been too long since we’ve all been together like this.”
She speaks the truth.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.