Seemingly all of us either have or yearn for an affectionate but caustically witty grandmother such as Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the endearing matriarch found at the centre of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Indeed, the film will make that painfully clear to its audience, for as will quickly become apparent, Nai Nai is terminally ill and unaware that she is dying. Her family in China have gone to great lengths to hide the truth from her, much to the consternation of American-grown granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina). A comically fabricated wedding sets the wheel in the motion for the extended family to return home one last time to say their goodbyes in every way but words.
Such an absurd premise would, with a less skilled hand at the helm, have suffered from a cloying soapiness. Thankfully Wang, whose personal experience serve as the basis of the story, has evaded this in favour of a script filled with personality and an assured trust in her cast’s chemistry to carry the day. Shuzhen’s performance is terrific; wondrously genial and protective of her kin, there is an often hard to swallow serving of dramatic irony in seeing her fuss over the health of her children and Billi. Her interactions with the wider ensemble cast vary between scenes of the utterly solemn to heart-warmingly silly- a particular favourite of the latter involves Nai Nai’s confusion at a stilted and awkward wedding photo-shoot, in which the prospective bride Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) struggles to appear intimate.
Memorable characters abound within the family circle, from Nai Nai’s oblivious live-in partner Mr Li to the younger cousin Bao, forever playing games on his phone. While certainly archetypes, there is a warm sense of the rank and file of the family, and a cultural sensitivity to familial dynamics that do not feel forced, but quietly earned. We are made to understand why certain relatives choose to maintain this lie, either to maintain harmony or out of a dutiful role to not scare Nai Nai. Through Billi’s perspective, we are afforded glimpses into what the family really feels throughout, often to poignant effect.
Speaking of Billi, it is refreshing to see Awkwafina, following on from her bit-roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, take a more central and realised role here. Billi’s wrestling with the lie underpins a wider thematic clash of eastern and western values about individualism and family ties. The film’s handling of this is mostly subtle and intelligible, though there are occasional lines of dialogue that are perhaps too on the nose.
Affecting and yet emotionally measured, The Farwell is the sort of intimate affair of film that, despite being about death and estrangement, manages to remain rewardingly charming. It would be a disservice to say that the film is carried dramatically by the novelty of its premise, but rather its observational wryness and the richness of excellently chosen cast. It certainly has excited me for Lulu Wang’s projects to come.