Lulu Wang based The Farewell on her own experiences with her Chinese family, which she detailed in an episode of This American Life for NPR. Despite a few Wes Anderson-like touches, this dramedy feels more like the small-scale domestic stories that Ang Lee made in Taiwan like The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. For a relatively new filmmaker to earn this comparison is pretty astonishing, and so too is this careful but pleasingly odd little film that expands to Tarrant County theaters this weekend.
Awkwafina plays Billi Wang, a struggling writer in New York City who learns that her beloved paternal grandmother in China, known affectionately as Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has advanced lung cancer and is expected to die in a few months. The family and Nai-Nai’s British-educated doctor (Jim Liu) agree not to tell the old lady about her diagnosis, figuring that there’s no reason to distress her when nothing can be done and she has so little time left. Billi, on the other hand, thinks this is really messed-up. (You might think so too, but Western doctors often did the same with terminal patients up until the 1960s, especially when those patients were women.) The matriarch’s far-flung descendants come back to visit her before it’s too late, with a hastily arranged wedding staged between Billi’s dim-bulb cousin (Chen Han) and a Japanese woman whom he barely knows (Aoi Mizuhara) to provide a pretext for everyone’s return.
Lulu Wang was born in Beijing, grew up in Miami, and studied filmmaking in L.A. I’ll admit I haven’t seen her one previous feature film, the art-world comedy Posthumous, but she looks like a born filmmaker. The edits are sharp, the scenes don’t drone on, the story moves along despite the quiet subject matter. Most of the scenes are shot in Changchun, a city almost twice the size of Los Angeles that still doesn’t make an exciting backdrop for the action, and yet Wang captures the feel of the place’s functionally ugly apartment blocks and the dowdy shopping districts. More importantly, she finds the atmosphere of a family where everyone is grieving but putting on a smiling face for the obliviously happy soon-to-be-deceased. Like Lee, Wang knows how to spike this restrained, sagaciously observed domestic drama with delightfully understated comedy like a chef lying on a restaurant floor for mysterious reasons or a cheesy romantic photo backdrop falling apart. The wedding itself is a funny set piece — in China as well as elsewhere, the groom’s friends drink too much and make stupid toasts that they’ll regret later.
Zhao Shuzhen is a longtime actress from Chinese theater and TV, and in her very first film appearance at age 75, she’s quite a forceful presence as she goes about dispensing advice to her descendants and arguing with a banquet hall manager that’s preparing to serve crab at the wedding when she agreed to lobster. Her interpretation of Nai-Nai’s brisk, businesslike demeanor is a major reason why the movie doesn’t become too heavily sentimental, and why the film tugs on our emotions without being cheap. Her final speech to her granddaughter before she returns to America is genuinely touching, too.
As for Awkwafina, the rapper and brash scene stealer from Crazy Rich Asians tones herself down to good effect in the more muted role of an American who navigates China knowing that her Mandarin is not up to scratch. (It’s still better than mine.) Lulu Wang doesn’t give us any easy answers: Billi’s Japanese uncle (Jiang Yongbo) argues that Nai-Nai has worried so much about her children throughout her life that it’s time that the children do the worrying now, while Billi recalls that her grandfather died under similar circumstances and she never got to say goodbye to him. You may have read that in real life, Lulu Wang’s grandmother is still living now, six years after she was supposed to die, and so her family got to tell Lulu that they told her so. Ah, but what a story she got out of it.
Starring Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen. Written and directed by Lulu Wang. Rated PG.