Drawing on her own real-life experience, director Lulu Wang has created a film that, whilst quite personal and culturally specific, is a poignant and sometimes quite funny depiction of a family crisis that should appeal to a wide audience. When Nai Nai, the much-loved head of a Chinese family, is struck down with a terminal illness, a decision is made by her family to keep the diagnosis from her, instead staging an impromptu wedding as an excuse for the clan to gather one final time. There will no doubt be some for whom the idea of propagating such a significant deception is unacceptable under any circumstances and, to her great credit, Wang seems determined to present both sides of the argument, exploring cultural and generational differences without judgement. Apparently, this is a common practice in Chinese culture, but the ruse doesn’t sit well with 30-year-old Billi who, despite having relocated to New York as a child, remains in regular contact with her grandmother.
Despite the fact that Billi, an aspiring writer with mounting debt, has cultivated a series of embellishments with regard to her own life, there are concerns that her close emotional connection with Nai Nai will make it impossible for her to maintain the secret. As such, her parents don’t actually want her to join them in returning to their homeland for what shapes as a final family reunion. Needless to say, Billi makes her own way to China expecting to serve as the voice of reason, only to find herself torn between her conscience and the wishes of the family. This ethical dilemma was one faced by Wang when her own beloved grandmother was dying in China and her family decided to withhold the prognosis in a bid to prevent their matriarch from living in fear throughout her remaining days.
As she comes to see just how vibrant and actively engaged in life Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) remains – from her negotiations with the caterer over the wedding banquet to her brutally frank observations of those around her – Billi’s resolve starts to dissipate and she finds herself swept up in the lie. As Billi, the mono-monikered Awkwafina (Ocean’s Eight, Crazy Rich Asians) takes on her most serious role to date and it is her chemistry with Zhao that goes a long way to making the film such an enjoyable experience. Charismatic and candid, Nai Nai is exactly the kind of grandmother most people would love to have and, whilst there is a distinct specificity to the story that makes it both unique and quite compelling, Wang has shown considerable respect to the nuances of the immigrant experience. Billi is far from fluent in her native language and feels disconnected from her ancestral home, while her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and her Tokyo-based uncle are united in their sense of guilt at not being there for their mother because they both live overseas.
Awkwafina brings layers of grief, confusion, love and defiance to her role and Wang balances the emotional moments of the film with frequent bursts of levity, much of which is built around the clash of cultures. But The Farewell is never condescending or disrespectful and whilst the various characters regularly engage in spirited discussions about which country is ‘better’, Wang never attempts to offer up any kind of definitive answer to the question. The Farewell very effectively captures the clash of cultures that immigrants often experience, a conflict that can leave them questioning where they belong in the world. Ultimately though, Wang makes it clear that it’s not for us to decide the virtue, or otherwise, of the way in which this group of people, or Chinese people generally, choose to deal with the impending death of a loved one. However, that doesn’t prevent us from enjoying this wonderfully warm, gentle and subtly moving drama.