A breakout hit of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Lulu Wang’s Chinese-American family drama The Farewell revolves around a very particular cultural split. In China, where the director was born, keeping a terminal diagnosis from a loved one is considered an act of compassion. In the United States, where she immigrated to as a child, it is simply illegal.
The film, which bills itself as being “based on an actual lie,” is drawn from Wang’s experience with her own grandmother, first detailed in an episode of NPR’s This American Life. When we first see 30-year-old Billi (Awkwafina), Wang’s stand-in, telephoning her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), fondly referred to as “Nai Nai,” the latter is already sitting in a hospital waiting room. She will shortly be diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She will not be told.
Soon enough, Billi and the rest of her extended family fly back to their home city of Changchun on the pretext of her cousin’s fake wedding. But the real goal is to visit Nai Nai before the inevitable funeral.
Although predominantly sombre in tone (with a blue colour palette to match), The Farewell trafficks in a hefty amount of cross-cultural humour, which will be familiar to anyone who has returned home after spending years abroad. Awkwafina, best known for her supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), has received much of the praise thus far—and it’s through her character’s perspective that the film’s comedy makes its mark. But it’s Zhao, as the clan matriarch, who most ably holds the screen with her lively, vivacious presence.
Eventually, The Farewell’s steady progression of amusing, tightly scripted vignettes comes to feel evasive—an attempt to avoid exploring the more prickly aspects of the potent scenario. Too often, Wang falls back on Alex Weston’s string-heavy score as a substitute for emotional depth.
That The Farewell is overly insistent is not, in itself, a death sentence. But even in her film’s most successful, genuinely touching scenes, Wang has a tendency to push too hard. And in doing so, she ultimately keeps her film’s potential at arm’s length.
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