Despite the unequivocal success of last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” and 1993’s surprise hit “The Joy Luck Club,” outside these outliers, Asian-American stories have lacked tangible representation on screen for decades. “Crazy Rich Asians” runaway success only underlined the severe drought: audiences completely underserved and hungry for their own cultural narratives. At his year’s Sundance Film Festival, the programmers have put in a real effort for change. Most notable in this move towards greater inclusivity is “The Farewell” from Asian-American director Lulu Wang (“Posthumous”), an immaculately impressive film which tackles its themes of love, loss, and family with such touching profundity; its simple manner makes for a knockout of emotional resonance.
“Based on an actual lie,” its opening title card is slightly confusing at first, but all is soon revealed: a story about letting sleeping dogs lie. “The Farewell” introduces the audience to Billi (“Crazy Rich Asians” breakout star Awkwafina) calling her grandmother, her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives back home in China. Although Billi and her family left China when she was 6, she’s maintained a close bond with Nai Nai, even if it’s over the phone.
But bad news hits fast: the family learns that Nai Nai is dying of cancer, with only a few months to live. But there’s a catch, and it’s here where the lie starts to metastasize: the family has decided to spare Nai Nai from the news. They’d instead she lives her final days, however long they may be, in a state of ignorant bliss rather than deal with the depression and fear that come with staring down your own mortality. To convince the entire family to travel to China together, they decide to concoct an elaborate plot and throw a rushed wedding celebration for Billi’s cousin, Nai Nai’s only grandson.
Despite Billi’s reservations about hiding the truth from her grandma, the rest of the family won’t budge and employ culturally common stories about similar supposedly benevolent deceptions. Even the hospital doctor tries to explain to Billi that it’s a “good lie,” which only goes to show the traditional and cultural divide between east and west. Although, truth be told, the movie hints at the possibility that maybe Nai Nai knows that she is in dire health but employs her own pretext to spare her family. Everyone, it seems, is lying for some supposed higher purpose.
In telling this culturally specific story, the brilliance of “The Farewell” is how it taps into a human universality: it’s not hard to relate the concerns for and fears of losing a loved one. With its simple, thoughtful storytelling, “The Farewell” becomes a deeply personal story for any viewer, and it’s a clear cut breakthrough for Wang, who has an incredible cast to work with here, including TV actress Zhao Shuzhen and veteran Tzi Ma, a scene-stealer, as Billi’s father. Family scenes in China, breaking bread, imbibing sweet alcoholic treats, feel rich and live-in with authentic dialogue and the kind of considerable ensemble chemistry any director would kill to have.
Known for her eccentric and comic persona to most mainstream viewers, in her first dramatic and starring role, Awkwafina rolls well with the serious-minded tone in the film. Her Billi is a character striving for identity, caught in a limbo in-between eastern and western traditions.
Yes, a case could be made for a tighter, less repetitive middle section— there can be only so many scenes of family trying to hide the truth from poor old grandma. However, it’s Wang’s singular gift for life’s simplest moments which makes “The Farewell” ring so truthfully bare, funny and emotional. In the wrong hands, “The Farewell,” could have masked its pain in broad comedy, but Wang doesn’t shy from a somberly melancholy that’s, clearly influenced by Ang Lee’s wonderful “The Wedding Banquet.”
Autobiographic in feel, Wang clearly identifies with Billi and a recent edition of “This American Life” revealed that, perhaps to little surprise, these with indelible moments weren’t born from fabrication.
Her decision to utilize hearty humor, but keep it all understated eventually results in an emotional powerhouse of a finale which weaves in a sadness that feels genuine and earned. Wang understands that universal themes bind countries and cultures as vast and different as America and China is their shared values, humanity and love for family and friends. [A-]