Sweet and ever-so-slight, “The Farewell” is a Chinese culture-clash comedy built on melancholy, driven by sentiment.
A family matriarch has lung cancer. But the doctors haven’t told her, just alerted the family. And the family, in China and in America, join ranks to keep the news from her.
Aspiring (and failing) New York writer, Billi (Awkwafina, aka Nora Lum) doesn’t see “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao) very often. But they’re constantly on the phone, and she’s appalled at what “the family has agreed” to do — lie.
“Chinese people have saying,” her brusque, flinty mother (Diana Lin) explains. “When people get cancer, they die.”
That’s the tone of the picture in a phrase. It’s about death. It’s about the lie. And keeping the first out of your mind while adhering to the second is where the comedy will come from.
A marriage has been hastily “arranged” for a cousin, as an excuse for everyone to gather around their widowed mother/grandmother and say “Goodbye” without letting her know they’re saying their farewells.
And nobody wants Billi to come. Dad (veteran character actor Tzi Ma) is “drinking again.” Mom seems bitterly resigned. But everybody in family diaspora is SURE Billi will be the one who cracks. She’s emotional, tight with Nai Nai and seriously assimilated.
“In America, you couldn’t do this,” she says, in English, and later in Chinese. “It’s ILLEGAL.”
Needless to say, Billi goes to the “wedding” anyway, the family holds its breath and her uncle takes her aside when they decree she cannot stay in Nai Nai’s flat, and lectures her.
“Be careful,” he says (in Chinese, with English subtitles). No matter what, “You cannot tell her,” he adds. And on and on.
Billi’s endlessly repeated reply (in Chinese, with English subtitles), is “I knowwwww.”
Writer-director Lulu Wang (“Posthumous) lets us know in an opening credit, that this is “based on an actual lie.” The shape of that lie, bending and folding, and on occasion causing the person telling the latest version of the lie to wilt with regret, is the substance of “The Farewell.”
But its values come elsewhere.
There’s Nai Nai herself, an amusing scold, calling her adored Billi “Stupid girl” at every turn, backhanding her weight, matchmaking for her because she seems to need it, insisting on arranging this faux “wedding,” insulting the Japanese bride (Aoi Mizuhara) that young Haohao (Han Chen) is to marry, totally missing the expression in both bride and groom’s eyes.
Think “deer in headlights.”
I adopted the bride, Aiko, as my guide into the movie. Speaking no Chinese, hustled into something that may not be formalized when they get back in Japan, where Haohao’s parents settled, she is the Queen of Good Sports and her reactions to the bickering, the drinking, the weeping and the lying is priceless.
Lin’s embittered mother figure is the soul of the picture; not that sentimental about Nai Nai’s passing, increasingly disappointed in her daughter (Billi has a big lie she’s living, too), resigned to going through all this rigamarole because that’s what “the family” wants.
Awkwakina has a tricky part to play, a woman suffering a sort of post traumatic separation anxiety. She is far more at home giving us sarcasm, sass and laughs than at getting across the subtler shades of grief and regret. The arc her character traverses is more interesting than her performance of it.
“The Farewell” is winning justly-earned praise for its moments (just a couple) discussing the immigrant experience (“You’re still Chinese.”) and one touching anecdote that explains America to those who have never been there.
The film’s real value, I think, is its vivid, fully rounded, warts-and-all portrait of Chinese family life — in America among the expats, and back home. There’s also an East-West comparison that gets at the difference between “family” here and there that is eye-opening.
This family has many fault lines. The city (Changchun) is ugly, dingy and grey. “New” hotels aren’t any better than timeworn ones. People drink too much and smoke too much. Service sector folks are often bored, disinterested and unbending. Too many relatives and strangers want you to compare China and America, even though nobody wants to get into which “war” Nai Nai is supposedly a veteran of (there’s a reunion of comrades scene).
And like the 1993 film this one most resembles, Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet,” we see a lot of food — some cooking, and much eating.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding this movie, some of it warranted due to its relative novelty, and some of the “OK, take a deep breath” variety.
What Wang gives us is an engagingly sentimental story with warmth, compassion and wit, peopled by relatives who, for all their cultural differences, are universal and yet enviable in their devotion to “the good lie” and the quality of life they see as worth protecting with it.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.
Cast: Awkwafina, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, Han Chen and Aoi Mizuhara
Credits: Written and directed by Lulu Wang. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:40