A plot summary of writer-director Lulu Wang’s superlative sophomore feature, The Farewell, reads like the sort of tear-jerking, family-focused indie dramedy that typically thrives at the Sundance Film Festival. (Indeed, the film was a hit at the fest this past January, netting Wang a Grand Jury Prize nomination for drama.) Billi (Crazy Rich Asians scene-stealer Awkwafina), a 30-ish Chinese-American writer living in NYC, has a warm long-distance relationship with her feisty paternal grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), a widow whom the family affectionately refers to as Nai Nai. It’s therefore a painful shock when Billi learns from her suburbanite parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), that doctors in China have diagnosed Nai Nai with late-stage lung cancer, estimating that she has just a few months to live. What truly sends the thoroughly Americanized Billi into an anguished lather, however, is the family’s resolve to conceal this grim prognosis from Nai Nai herself, reportedly a not-uncommon practice in China. Instead, the family cooks up a pretext to gather their scattered clan together in Nai Nai’s home city of Chungchun: celebrating the hastily planned marriage of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara).
Everyone other than Nai Nai herself is in on this morbid deception, including the matriarch’s sister, Little Nai Nai (Hong Lu), who intercepts her elder sibling’s medical results and declares that the spots on her MRI have been determined to be “benign shadows.” Meanwhile, Billi’s nervous parents try to dissuade her from traveling to Chungchun for her cousin’s shotgun wedding. They’re fearful that Billi’s close bond with her grandmother, combined with her own sensitive, expressive personality, will fatally undermine the family’s ruse. Billi ignores this advice, paying her own way to China – a decision eased by the compulsion to escape a crushing professional disappointment in America. Thus begins a poker-faced, melancholic farce in which every family member, Billi included, dons a forced smile for Nai Nai’s sake and tries to appreciate what will presumably be their last opportunity to spend time with her.
It’s exactly the kind of high-concept, emotionally fraught scenario that American indies specialize in serving up, although in this instance it is built on the closely observed cultural and psychological specifics of the Chinese-American immigrant experience. That specificity is far from incidental: The Farewell is essentially a fictionalized version of the benevolent deception that Wang’s real-world relatives perpetrated on her grandmother. Wang recounted the incident in a 2016 episode of This American Life, and the film closely follows the story beats as she described them on that program. Little Nai Nai and her beloved singing Chihuahua, Ellen, even play themselves on screen.
Billi is nonplussed to learn that concealing a terminal illness from an elderly individual is not unusual in China, where doctors deliver the bad news to a relative rather than directly to the patient. This is not only legal but also regarded as the ethical thing to do – partly so as not to burden the patient with his or her own looming demise, and partly due to the Chinese belief in the synergy between mind and body. After all, Billi’s family argue, there’s a good chance that informing Nai Nai that she is gravely ill will just end up accelerating her physical deterioration. In fact, Nai Nai herself pulled a similar well-meaning con on her husband when he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Billi’s Uncle Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) describes such ruses as a mercy, framing the family’s collective decision to assume the psychological burden of Nai Nai’s illness as a duty gladly borne out of love. Of course, no one seems to have asked the visibly embarrassed Hao Hao and Aiko whether they wanted to wed; the relationship, such as it is, is only three months old, and the bride doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin. The expectation is that grandchildren – and their foreign sweethearts, evidently – should fulfill whatever responsibilities their families demand of them, and do so with a convincing smile, dammit.
Wang treats this material with great deftness, sincerity, and generosity, never explicitly advancing that the East or the West – as an exasperated Haibin simplistically divides the world – has an exclusive claim on the “best” way of living and dying. Wang, who was born in China but immigrated to the U.S. at age 6, uses her own cinematic analogue as the audience proxy, positioning Billi as the assimilated skeptic who pushes back compulsively yet steadily against traditions that seem illogical to her. However, The Farewell is deeply and affectionately embedded in the granular domestic aspects of middle-class Chinese life. The film is overwhelmingly in Mandarin, and Billi is portrayed not as an interloper but as a cherished member of her sprawling and far-flung extended family. (She also seems to be Nai Nai’s favorite.) Although Billi is occasionally a step or two behind those relatives who are older (and more fluent in Mandarin), necessitating a diegetic explanation for this phase or that tradition, there’s a refreshing absence of audience-directed “as you know” exposition. During a vivid graveside ceremony in honor of Nai Nai’s years-gone husband, the non-Chinese viewer must puzzle out for themselves the offerings of oranges, cookies, liquor, and burnt paper goods (which include replicas of money, clothing, and even iPads.)
The Farewell is the type of grounded, character-centered dramedy that usually wins viewers over with a sharp screenplay and lively personalities, which is a backhanded way of saying that films of this stripe are typically undistinguished, visually speaking. Not so with Wang’s feature, which from its opening shots proves to be a feast of stunning compositions, eye-catching environments, and the sort of accidental surrealism that often characterizes the spaces of modern, urbanized China. (The photography studio where the maybe-happy couple have their wedding shoot is a treasure trove of mesmerizing kitsch, including fuzzy pink hearts, gilded staircases, cotton-ball clouds, and replica Greek statuary.)
Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano frequently frame the characters with an expanse of negative space above their heads, suggesting the churning emotions that remain unexpressed for the sake of harmony, propriety, and Nai Nai’s sunny mood. Into this space, the filmmakers sometimes drop a background image such as a painting, poster, or illuminated cityscape to balance or accentuate the shot. Solano was reportedly influenced by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2008), but it’s the Japanese director’s recent Shoplifters (2018) that Solano’s work here most clearly evokes, with its deep-focus compositions and sharp-eyed regard for the arrangement of people in small spaces. Meanwhile, Alex Weston’s memorably eccentric score eschews both traditional Chinese forms and predictable pop-music cues. Recalling Alexandre Desplat’s work on Wes Anderson’s last few features, the soundtrack is heavy on plucked strings and moody vocalization. It’s at once completely left-field and eminently fitting for the subdued, off-kilter mood that Wang’s film requires.
Awkwafina’s striking downshift into relatively straitlaced drama is unquestionably the film’s marquee acting draw, but the The Farewell’s real scene-stealer is Nai Nai herself, whom Shuzhen Zhao inhabits wholly: a sprightly, diminutive grande dame who commands the attention of any room with her brightly barbed wit. However, Diana Lin bestows Billi’s mom, Jian, with some of the film’s most compelling shadings. Kind-hearted but still clinging to a sliver of outsider’s bitterness decades after she married into the family, the buttoned-down Jian finds performative grief distasteful and embarrassing. “What do you want from me?” she demands when Billi accuses her of insensitivity toward Nai Nai. “To scream and cry like you?” In truth, it’s actually challenging to pick a clear standout in the cast. The performers are superb across the board at using bland pleasantries, furtive glances, and gravid silence – the lingua franca of a family struggling to keep a secret – to convey the clan’s complex landscape of affections, anxieties, and resentments.
Wang’s overall approach to this story is wonderfully mellow, thoughtful, and ambiguous. Although a profound pathos flutters just beneath the relatively restrained surface of The Farewell, the filmmaker never attempts to crassly manipulate the viewer into shedding tears on behalf of her autofictional family. The preemptive mourning that Billi and her family are struggling to conceal is frankly unremarkable in its universality; Wang’s film is more interested in the way that the deception compelled by their culture variously confuses, counters, and heightens their grief. Privately, Billi’s relatives express a diverse array of attitudes regarding their noble lie: matter-of-fact blitheness, clammy guilt, brooding anxiety, and grim self-possession. Meanwhile, Billi’s youngest cousin, Bao Bao, is too absorbed with his smartphone to notice the pent-up drama that unfolds in hissed whispers whenever Nai Nai leaves the room. Although much of the film’s dry laughs are rooted in affectionate clichés about Chinese families – Nai Nai’s ears perk up when she learns that her handsome doctor is single, prompting her to shoot emphatic looks at Billi – Wang refrains from leaning on overstated “wacky relative” humor. It’s vital to the film’s somber, faintly surreal tone that her characters and their bottled-up grief feel consistently genuine.
Such is the film’s sorrowful, unassuming elegance that Wang never needs to overtly call attention to one of its key themes: the common human struggle to live one’s life in the shadow of death. Through her stranger-than-fiction tale and the redolent specifics of Chinese and Chinese-American life, Wang discovers an entry point into a stark subject: Namely, how should the knowledge of our own mortality affect the way we live? Is it better to willfully ignore death, to stoically confront it head-on, to obsess over its inevitability, or to defy it by living voraciously? Nai Nai herself expresses a greeting-card adage that seems to align with the film’s favored philosophy: “Life’s not just about what you do, it’s more about how you do it.” However, Wang’s screenplay is at once too probing, too ambivalent, and too brooding (in that distinctly American way) to believe that this maxim is the end-all, be-all secret to happiness. In one of the film’s more glumly amusing scenes, Billi’s uncle walks her back to her hotel, repeating things she’s already aware of over and over – “Your Nai Nai loves you very much, but she’s very sick. You must be careful not to tell her.” – to which Billi can only reply, respectfully but exhausted, “I know, Uncle. I know. I know.” While everyone could stand to be reminded of their mortality from time to time, dwelling on it isn’t especially productive. The real question is: How does knowing it’s going to end someday change the way we live today?