As an Asian audience, I knowingly smiled as watching the heroine of “The Farewell” coming inside her dear grandmother’s residence full of their family members. When I was young, I and my family routinely visited the house of my mother’s eldest brother along with many other relatives, and I still fondly remember those lively domestic moments among my family and relatives, which are not so far from those boisterous domestic moments in the film.
In the beginning, the movie establishes the affectionate relationship between Billi Wang (Awkwafina) and her grandmother, who is usually called “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen). Although she has lived with her parents for many years in US since they left Changchun, China, Billi remains close to her grandmother nonetheless, and their mutual affection feels apparent to us as she and her grandmother, who is still living in Changchun, talk with each other on the phone for a while.
However, not long after speaking with her grandmother, Billi comes to learn from her parents that her grandmother has recently been diagnosed to have terminal lung cancer. Although it is quite possible that Nai Nai will die within several months, Billi’s parents and the other family members including Nai Nai’s younger sister already decided that they should not tell anything about that to Nai Nai, because they want Nai Nai to live her remaining life as peacefully and painlessly as possible. They lie to her that she is healthy as usual, and they also hasten the wedding of Billi’s male cousin and his fiancée, which will function as a convenient excuse for family members to come and see Nai Nai for the last time.
Although her parents tell her not to come because she may not keep the secret to herself well, Billi eventually decides to come to Changchun. Her unexpected arrival certainly generates some nervousness among her parents and other family members, but Nai Nai gladly greets her dear granddaughter as before, and that makes Billi feel more conflicted than before. She manages to hide the growing sadness inside her from Nai Nai, but she also wonders more whether Nai Nai deserves to know about her impending death.
While never hurrying itself at all, the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Lulu Wang, which is inspired by her real-life family story, leisurely moves from one episodic moment to another. As the matriarch of the family, Nai Nai busily and happily occupies herself in the preparation for the upcoming wedding. There is a humorous scene where she becomes quite pissed about a minor mistake in the meal to be served to the wedding guests, and then we get a funny moment involved with the groom and his bride, who cannot help but feel awkward as being pushed toward wedding faster than expected.
And we gradually come to know more about not only Billi and Nai Nai but also their family members. While Billi’s father and his older brother, who also left China and has settled in Japan, feel guilty about not often being there for their mother, Billi’s mother turns out to have her own emotional issues, and Billi comes to muse more on the remaining generation gap between her and her parents. Sure, she and her parents love and care about each other, but there are still some unresolved feelings between them, and that leads to a small but powerful moment between her and her mother later in the story.
Nevertheless, the movie never lets itself mired in sadness as constantly exuding humor and warmness, and its main pleasure comes from how effortlessly it goes back and forth between comedy and drama. While it is mostly as calm and serene as those intimate family drama films of Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, the movie does not hesitate from overtly comic moments, and that aspect is particularly exemplified well by a key scene where Billi and her family members visit the tomb of her diseased grandfather.
In the end, everything in the story culminates to the wedding ceremony as expected, but Wang wisely avoids cheap sentimentality as tactfully rolling its story and characters along the whole gamut of emotions. Regardless of how many wedding guests actually know about Nai Nai’s terminal illness, Nai Nai and other family members around her cannot help but swept into the joyous mood of the wedding along with others, and I particularly like a small scene where several old people talk a bit about a certain interesting part of Nai Nai’s life.
As the beating heart of the film, Awkwafina, who previously drew our attention via her colorful supporting performances in “Ocean’s Eight” (2018) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), demonstrates a more serious side of her talent here in this film, and her sensitive low-key performance makes an effective contrast with the unadorned tenderness of Zhao Shuzhen, who alternatively amuses and touches us with her warm supporting performance. Along with the other main cast members including Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, Awkwafina and Zhao present a vivid, realistic portrayal of family members who have known each other for a long time, and the result is one of the best ensemble performances of this year.
While very funny and insightful during its numerous sweet moments, “The Farewell” is also quite moving in its thoughtful handling of intimate subjects, and I must confess that it almost made me cry from time to time during my viewing. Considering that I do not cry that often while watching movies, that is certainly an achievement, and I think it is one of the best films of this year.