- The Farewell
- Written and directed by: Lulu Wang
- Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma and Shuzhen Zhao
- Classification: PG; 98 minutes
“Crazy Middle-Class Asians.” That’s how you could market the new family drama The Farewell, if you were especially crass about it. Or it’s how you could describe the film if you were, say, the writer-director Lulu Wang, who jokingly coined the label for her own movie when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. Wang isn’t exactly wrong. Like Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell is one of a handful of films with a predominantly Asian cast and creative team to ever open wide (wide-ish) in North America. But unlike Crazy Rich Asians, which had eyes for narrative substance but shamelessly flirted with the superficial, The Farewell is a more substantive, engrossing and ultimately deeper work about the bonds that hold and strengthen us.
Using Wang’s own family history – “based on an actual lie,” as the opening credits inform – The Farewell tells a big drama that carefully gets whittled to a hundred tiny little dramas, each affecting in their own way. The film opens in Changchun, China, where family matriarch Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is awaiting test results at a local hospital. Unbeknownst to her, the elderly woman has cancer and is likely to die in a few months. But in an effort to avoid upsetting Nai Nai, her sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) hides the diagnosis – a strategy that the film repeatedly informs us is common practice in China – and the rest of her globally scattered brood decide to make their way back to Changchun for one last visit.
Not everyone is so keen on the subterfuge, though, most notably granddaughter Billi (Crazy Rich Asians breakout Akwafina). China-born but New York-raised, Billi intensely feels the tug between obligation and independence, tradition and culture, love and honesty. Yet as she makes her way to Changchun, alongside her reformed alcoholic father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and ultra-stoic mother Jian (Diana Lin), the latter of whom scolds her daughter early on for being unable to “hide your emotions,” Billi finds her family digging themselves deeper into a lie to avoid too many other, more uncomfortable truths.
Wang could have easily played her story for broad laughs, or gone in the opposite direction and become mired in the kind of glacially paced misery so many indie family dramas are known for. She instead keeps the entire affair pleasingly understated, with a genuine sense of curiosity about her characters and their many plights. By using Billi as her, and the audience’s, avatar, the world of Changchun becomes something of a character in its own right. Billi’s first impression of the city is of a soulless collection of apartments and office buildings, only briefly punctuated by the neon of the market streets below. Yet, once she and the film step inside Nai Nai’s well-worn apartment, the appeal of anywhere we choose to call “home” becomes immediately clear.
Wang’s eye for these small-yet-large details is amplified tenfold by the performances she wrings out of her cast. Zhao perfectly embodies the zippy, guilt-inducing energy of everyone’s favourite grandmother, while Ma and Lin lean on each other with such unaffected sincerity that you’d think they share a life off-screen, too. (Actual authenticity comes from the casting of Hong, Wang’s real-life great-aunt.) And toggling between English and Mandarin, Awkafina is a revelation – anyone who’s previously written off the rapper and actor as shticky comic relief will be tremendously embarrassed.
So while “Crazy Middle-Class Asians" is fine marketing, there’s another line that echoed in my head long after Wang’s film concluded. Warning her daughter not to spill the beans to Nai Nai, Jian tells Billi: “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die.” It is a slice of truth, humour and heart, all delivered with supreme conviction. Just like the rest of The Farewell.
The Farewell opens July 19 in Toronto and Vancouver before expanding to other Canadian cities July 26