Bittersweet comedies seldom have premises more winning than filmmaker Lulu Wang’s setup for “The Farewell”: In China, a young New Yorker visits her grandmother, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and is instructed by her extended family to keep the old woman in the dark about her condition. How can she comply with such a request?
“Based on an actual lie,” Wang’s sophomore feature (after “Posthumous”) is an amusing East-meets-West adventure and an endearing granddaughter-grandmother love story.
Awkwafina, impressive in a leading dramatic role, plays Billi, a young writer who emigrated from China with her mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma) when she was 6. Billi, who lives in New York City, has remained close with her paternal grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in China. The two engage in delightful cellphone conversations, in Mandarin.
Billi learns that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and that the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai she’s dying. To convince Nai Nai that things are rosy while giving relatives around the world a chance to say good-bye to the beloved matriarch, the family has invited everyone to an unexpected wedding, disguising an almost-funeral as a celebration.
Amid the false cheer at the family house in Changchun, Billi can barely suppress her tears. She politely questions the ethics of lying to Nai Nai about her cancer, but her relatives view such dishonesty as an act of kindness.
Initially feeling like a stranger in the land of her birth, Billi slowly comes to understand the intricacies of her family’s tangled ties and cultural traditions.
The story also includes a wedding banquet featuring tearful speeches and inebriated karaoke singing.
As a protagonist, Billi is mostly a passive outsider and observer, not a force of energy or purpose. She doesn’t give the movie much dramatic thrust.
But offsetting that shortcoming are numerous merits, including Wang’s appealing comic touch and talent for creating texture and achieving emotional effect.
Wang has created three-dimensional characters filled with intriguing secrets and subtleties, revealed in effective close-ups and nuggets of dialogue.
Skillfully blending humor and sorrow, she’s made an enjoyable and empathetic film about family, mortality and identity.
Awkwafina, who did scene-stealing comic supportive work in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8,” provides crucial sadness in the role of Billi, who’s based on Wang herself. Through Billi, Wang captures the Chinese-American experience.
At one point, the actress delivers a knockout monologue, in which Billi tells her weary-looking parents about her long-held feelings of displacement.
Awkwafina’s scenes with costar Zhao, a wonderful presence, give the movie an emotional core. Inspired by Wang’s own grandmother, Nai Nai delivers surprises right up till the end.
Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Diana Lin, Tzi Ma
Written and directed by: Lulu Wang
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes