Lulu Wang's low-key slice-of-life The Farewell debuted at Sundance earlier this year, and from the description in the program guide, it sounded like typical indie fare. "Troubled soul finds a renewed purpose in life after reconnecting with her roots" may be the most common indie premise — just edging out "hapless schmuck witnesses a crime" and "sensitive artist struggles to be heard."
But The Farewell left Sundance audiences enraptured, and for good reason. The movie doesn't have a twisty plot; and yet at nearly every turn, with nearly every choice Wang makes, The Farewell defies expectations.
At the start of the film, we meet a 30-ish, New York-based artist named Billi, who's going through a rough stretch. The friend whose apartment she's subletting needs her to move out. Her application for a Guggenheim fellowship has been denied. And just when things couldn't seem much worse, her parents let her know that her beloved grandmother back in China — her Nai Nai — is dying of cancer. So Billi decides to do something drastic. She converts every asset she has into cash, and flies to China to say goodbye to her grandma — even though her mother and father have expressly asked her not to go.
Billi is played by Awkwafina, the comedian and rapper who's been a social media superstar for the past several years, and a hilarious supporting player in movies like Crazy Rich Asians. Born Nora Lum (to a Chinese-American father and a Korean mother), Awkwafina is known for her raspy voice, her plucky underdog demeanor, and her frank commentary on race, gender and sexuality.
She also has a casually commanding screen presence, which Wang puts to good use in a role that's unusual for her. She's still funny, but not because Billi has a sharp wit. It's more that Billi is amusingly overwhelmed by her Chinese family's complicated traditions and expectations. She's an everywoman, standing in for the audience as she's at first baffled and then heartbroken at how her trip plays out.
The Farewell isn't wholly about Billi, though. The movie is self-described as "based on actual life" (as Wang previously explained in the This American Life radio segment that inspired this film). Apparently, in some corners of Chinese culture, it's believed to be detrimental to the health of dying people to tell them they're dying; so Billi's family pretends to gather in China for a wedding party, to see Nai Nai one last time without making her suspicious. Relatives from far and wide — many of whom haven't seen each other in years — have to figure out a way to express their feelings, without saying anything directly.
The tone of The Farewell is mostly light, even when the characters are being put through the emotional wringer. At times the film borders on farce, as Nai Nai (played by Zhao Shuzhen) makes grander and grander plans for the big wedding banquet, and her kids and grandkids scramble to keep up, improvising wildly to keep her happy. And at times The Farewell is more suspenseful, as everyone waits to see if Billi — who arrives in China looking like someone coming to a funeral, not a family reunion — will spoil the scheme by blurting out something inappropriate.
There are precedents for a film like The Farewell, though few are American. The movie resembles some of the early films of Ang Lee, like Eat Drink Man Woman, and the family dramas of Hirokazu Kore-eda, like Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son. It tracks the subtle dynamics between parents and children: how sometimes they hide the truth from each other behind inane small talk, and sometimes they criticize each other viciously, with a smile, without giving it a second thought. ("Kids are an investment," one of Billi's relatives says to her at one point, before suggesting that she's "a losing stock.")
There's something universal about the relationships in The Farewell — so loving and fractured — that's so relatable. And yet a lot of this film is as attuned to small cultural differences as Crazy Rich Asians.
Some of these details are small, like the boiler in Billi's Chinese hotel room that she's meant to use to make potable drinking water. Some are larger. like the professional criers the family comes across when they're visiting Nai Nai's late husband at the cemetery. As Nai Nai plans the big wedding party, there's a lot in this movie about the precise food and alcohol she has to order to avoid the humiliation of not providing her guests what they expect.
The biggest gulf between a Chinese version of a story about a dying grandmother and an American one is that Nai Nai is unaware — or at least seems unaware — of the severity of her condition. With no laws to compel doctors to communicate directly with patients, they share bad news with the family, leaving it up to them to decide how much to convey. Maybe Nai Nai secretly knows what's up, and is just playing along, gobbling down what she says are "vitamins," not cancer-fighting drugs. Or maybe there really is something to the old saying that, "It isn't the cancer that kills, it's the fear." So long as Nai Nai's blissfully unaware, she'll at least die happy.
The Farewell becomes especially poignant down the stretch, during the long banquet scene, where Nai Nai's family and friends take turns praising her for hospitality … all as an excuse to tell her how much she means to them. Billi's speech is the most dramatic, because — again, without stating anything outright — it encompasses the shambles she feels her life is in back home, and the disappointment she feels she's become to her parents, and the comfort she's always taken from calling China to talk to her grandmother.
By the closing credits, The Farewell has come full circle: from being a character study of one stressed-out New Yorker, to being a rich portrait of where she came from and what her life really means, to showing her back at home, re-centered.
This is a purposeful and crowd-pleasing film that never hits any of its points too hard, because Wang has too much to cover to let any one message drown out the others. She wants The Farewell to consider so many things: like generational changes, and the importance of tradition, and how sometimes our lives and relationships are held together by the lies we tell each other.