“Based on a true lie,” The Farewell is the story of a family concealing from its matriarch, Nai Nai (Shuzen Zhao), that she is dying from lung cancer. The story opens on Billi (Awkwafina) struggling to make ends meet and find her way as a young writer in New York City. Billi and her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), moved to New York when she was six years old. Since then, she has maintained a close relationship with her grandmother, Nai Nai, over the phone. When she discovers that her parents are traveling home to China to say goodbye to Nai Nia under the pretext of her cousin’s wedding, thrown together to bring the family together for the first time in years, Billi books her own trip. The family did not want her to come along, for fear that she would not be able to conceal her grief, but Billi cannot miss the opportunity to say goodbye. Her trip to China also brings more feelings about her family, immigration, and her future to the surface, as the whole group struggles with the ethical implications of keeping their secret from Nai Nai.
The Farewell is a stunning, emotional story about family and grief that treats the heavy emotions evoked with a light touch. Because the family is trying to conceal their sorrow from Nai Nai, many of the bigger issues around death are pushed down, bringing the family’s conflict and Billi’s feelings about her home to the surface, until the grief bubbles to the top again. Through this pattern, the story portrays how complicated issues around identity, loyalty, and the past are connected in profound ways.
The film also does a beautiful job of using place to evoke these feelings. The story is set mainly in China, and Billi wants to revisit places from her childhood that simply no longer exist. In highlighting these changes and their impact on Billi, they give the audience a tangible way into her feelings about leaving China and missing her grandparents. Similarly, Billi’s use of Chinese signals how she situates herself as a Chinese-American woman. Chinese was her first language, but after immigrating to the U.S. she does not use it as often as English. Once back in China, she is able to speak Chinese with her family but often asks her parents what a phrase means, or, for example, what the word for “congratulations” is. Her switches between Chinese and English often indicate moments when she feels caught between two emotions or between her past and the situation at hand. These gestures are subtle but emotionally powerful.
The ensemble cast does a fantastic job depicting the family dynamics. Awkwafina is a surprisingly strong actress and she masterfully portrays Billi’s mixed emotions and how hard she tries to conceal them from Nai Nai. She and Shuzen Zhao have wonderful chemistry as granddaughter and grandmother. Zhao gives her character warmth and a fun sense of humor. The tension between Billi and her parents simmers under many of the scenes and Diana Lin does a great job showing her character’s disappointment and frustration while Tzi Ma oscillates between grieving and a resigned sort of affection.
Along with all these thoughtful and emotional elements, The Farewell is also very funny and tightly edited. It is a short film that packs a lot of punch and I highly recommend it. 4/5 stars
The Farewell opens at Cinema Center on Friday, August 16th. It was written and directed by Lulu Wang. It runs 100 minutes and is rated PG.