Photo | Big Beach Films
If you cannot decide whether or not to visit the family for Thanksgiving this year, watch “The Farewell” and make the trip. A bittersweet comedy about conflicting customs and attitudes toward death, truth and responsibility, this film is based on a true story about how one Chinese woman’s family reacted to her devastating medical diagnosis. They went to extreme lengths to lie to her about her condition.
Writer/director Lulu Wang brought her personal experience to bear in this film. When her own “Nai Nai,” which is the Mandarin name for grandmother, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given months to live, the family staged a fake wedding so that family members could see Nai Nai one last time without cluing her into the real reason. What sounds like an outrageous premise to most Americans is not just plausible, it’s true. Cultural differences between native Chinese people and their immigrant offspring are explored through one of life’s biggest milestones: the end.
YouTube comedian turned cinema sensation Awkwafina, after gaining attention with her broad humor in “Ocean’s 8” and the blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians,” stars as Billi, the character that the writer based on herself. Born in China, her parents moved their family to the U.S. when Billi was a small child. Rather than rebel against the older customs, Billi often longs for aspects of her life when she was a child in China.
One custom she takes issue with, however, is that of keeping the truth of her grandmother’s terminal cancer from her. Billi is a struggling writer, sensitive and articulate, and her parents try to keep her in the dark about the situation as well, because they think she is too emotional to keep the secret. Awkwafina’s distinctively husky voice works beautifully here at a subdued, plaintive whisper, and her wonderfully expressive face contributes so much to a nuanced story where you really can see both sides of what is right to do.
While the topic is death, this is a gently hilarious and uplifting film. You will come to love Nai Nai as much as her family does. Zhao Shuzhen’s performance as Nai Nai is so warm and deeply layered; the script and her delivery give you such a sense of her history, and the connection with her story is strong.
The situation is inherently funny. The sham couple whose wedding brings the family together never fail to look confused and alarmed. Nai Nai had two sons and both emigrated, one to Japan and one, Billi’s father, to the U.S. The Japanese grandson is the groom, and his bride seem well-meaning but, perhaps fortunately, she has no idea what anyone is saying most of the time. The film is largely in Mandarin with subtitles.
Nai Nai leaves you guessing as to how much she might really understand or suspect. She cannot help but notice that the alleged couple do not seem terribly intimate with one another, and speculates as to their relationship in the bedroom. She also thinks her sons seem unwell because their eyes and faces look swollen. Everyone seems to have a cold, but of course, it is because they have all been weeping in private. And for a couple that no one seems particularly invested in, the speeches at their wedding become overwhelmingly emotional.
“The Farewell” is an extraordinarily gentle drama that is thought-provoking in the nicest, most pleasant way. It might inspire reflection or meaningful discourse, but even when the family members argue about the best course to follow, their intentions are truly good. This film shows you love, and asks what is the best way to show it. The cultural and generational differences are explored respectfully, contemplatively, and the truth of this story shines through every character and every scene. Even if the film itself is about a lie.
“The Farewell” is currently available to rent.
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