In Changchun, China, a wedding is happening. Nai Nai, the family’s diligent and kind-hearted matriarch, is organizing a luxurious banquet. Friends and relatives are flying in from around the world. In New York, Nai Nai’s son Haiyan and his wife Jian are packing to leave. Their daughter Billi desperately wants to come with them, but they won’t let her. Because this isn’t really a wedding. It’s a farewell.
Nai Nai has stage four lung cancer. With her three-month prognosis looming, her loved ones are gathering to see her for the last time. Except there’s one crucial detail: Nai Nai isn’t aware of her illness. The family thinks it best to keep her blissfully ignorant, and they’re worried that Billi, overflowing with concern for her beloved grandmother, will let the secret slip. But there’s no stopping her from showing up anyway; she’d never miss the chance to say goodbye.
From the slouch of her neck to her persistently sorrowful expressions, Billi’s sadness and discomfort are brilliantly expressed through Awkwafina’s perfect physical performance. We feel the weight of the emotional burden she has to carry as if it’s resting on our slumped shoulders, too. It’s obvious Billi’s hiding something, but not to Nai Nai, played with astonishing naturalism by Zhao Shuzhen. Adorable, kind, and funny, she is Billi’s rock, and it’s delightful to watch them chatting and teasing one another side-by-side.
Crucially, director Lulu Wang finds humor in the darkness of the situation. The Farewell is a surprisingly funny ride, peppered with moments of laugh-out-loud comedy that almost ironically accentuate the weight of the more hard-hitting scenes. This delicate dance of levity and gravity is so expertly done that it rarely feels like we’re watching a scripted drama. The Farewell is, incredibly, based on a true story and the wealth of human nuances in Wang’s characters shows this.
Staged for the most part in meticulously-framed tableau shots, The Farewell is a visual treat. In an age dominated by handheld, close-up heavy cinema, it’s always refreshing to see a director let simple blocking tell the story. Whether it’s an opulent banquet hall or Nai Nai’s dinner table, Wang lets her characters inhabit these spaces, transporting us right there with them. When the close-ups do arrive, they pack a punch; a milky, shallow focus underscores the cast’s vividly emotional faces, sometimes paired with intense slow-motion.
Connecting all of this is Alex Weston’s dreamlike score, a collection of melodic Bach-inspired lullabies that take center-stage and drift gracefully into the background as necessary. Paired with the ethereal vocals of singer Mykal Kilgore, the music builds an atmosphere that oscillates between airy and somber, conveying Billi’s rippling emotions with sonic elegance. As always, there’s room for hilarious interludes; a particularly touching sequence has Billi and her father karaoke to the Fugees’ cover of “Killing Me Softly.”
The cultural differences between East and West dominate most of the film’s drama. Having lived in America since the age of six, Billi struggles painfully with the divide between what she and her family each feel is necessary. During a hospital visit, Billi asks the doctor, “Isn’t it wrong to lie?”“It’s a good lie,” he says. Keeping a loved one in the dark about their condition is a practice not uncommon in China. Is it a good lie? That’s up to you. But there’s no denying The Farewell is a good film, a brilliant, moving experience that sticks with you.