It should come as no surprise Lulu Wang’s comedy-drama is semi-autobiographical; you really couldn’t make this story up. Billi (rapper/actor Awkwafina, who played Goh Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians) is a 30-year-old Chinese-American woman living in New York.
Declined for a fellowship and hence unable to make her rent, Billi’s troubles worsen when her parents inform her that her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has Stage 4 lung cancer and three months to live. But here’s the thing: in China, where Nai Nai still resides (in the north-eastern city of Changchun), it’s common practice for doctors and family members to hide news of terminal illness from those afflicted, in order to carry the burden for them. So it is that Nai Nai’s extended family descend upon Changchun from America and Japan under the ruse that Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), is getting married. And Nai Nai, being an octogenarian matriarch who’s full of love but tolerates zero crap, takes it upon herself to organise the banquet.
‘Based on an actual lie’ is the first thing to appear on screen, and indeed the film is: Wang’s own Nai Nai really did have Stage 4 lung cancer, and the family actually staged a fake wedding so that it might rally around her. It’s a remarkable tale, but more remarkable still is that Wang resisted pressure from American studios to fashion it into a screwball comedy or melodrama, and instead plays it low-key and straight. Sure, there are laughs, and yes, there is sentiment, but the former are of the observational rather than farcical variety, and the latter is drip-fed and well-earned.
Shooting with natural colours and largely static compositions, DoP Anna Franquesa Solano rightly trusts the material isn’t in need of tics and tricks to help it along – a small series of modest whip-pans at the wedding feels like GoodFellas after the poise that has come before. And yet every scene commands attention, whether it’s the looming architecture and bustling streets, or the constant preparation and consumption of food (a way for the family to demonstrate love without recourse to vulgar declarations), or the comparing and contrasting of Chinese and American values. Billi, meanwhile, propels the action, for it is her constant questioning of the morality of the lie they are living that introduces suspense and drama.
Most of all, though, The Farewell is a film about family, with all of its frets and foibles, fondness and fidelity. It is heartfelt and beautifully observed, so while everyone on screen is doing their utmost to hold back tears, yours will come unchecked.