In the opening credits of “The Farewell,” the film claims it is “based on an actual lie” — and it is. The bulk of the events portrayed in the movie actually happened to writer / director Lulu Wang, which makes for a very personal (if almost unbelievable) story.
Chinese-born and U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) travels from New York City back to her birth country to celebrate her cousin’s upcoming marriage. A lavish wedding has been planned by the family, but it’s only a cover for the real truth. Their beloved Grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, but her family has decided not to tell her about her fatal disease.
Nai Nai isn’t expected to live much longer and no one wants to interrupt the short time she has left by informing her of that fact. It’s hard enough for Billi to be back in China because she already feels as if she doesn’t belong, but the struggle with her family’s decision to hide the truth is even more difficult to bear.
The film is tenderly directed with an observant eye, which is very fitting for Wang’s subdued storytelling style (ditto for the editing, natural lighting, and Alex Weston‘s expressive original score). The raw, emotional turn from Awkwafina proves that she is capable of dramatic depth, and she’s by far the standout here. While there’s much to admire about this film, it’s a bit slow at times and some of the supporting performances are distracting in their mediocrity.
What works, works well, like the way the film takes a very human (and sometimes very sad) look at the different ways people are expected to accept death and their individual ways of saying goodbye to a loved one. As each cousin and sister and aunt and uncle and grandchild must face the fact that Nai Nai won’t be around forever, the film shines a light on the different traditions between East and West.
The clash of cultures and tug-of-war over familial connections to the past eventually comes down to one thing: it’s the time you spend with your family that really matters in the end.