Written by Michael Clawson
Say hello to writer-director Lulu Wang, whose auspicious, autobiographical sophomore feature The Farewell, starring a very good Awkwafina, showcases one of the more subtly assured cinematic voices to break through this year.
Awkwafina plays Billi, Wang’s stand-in, a single, twenty-something year old Chinese-American based in New York. When her family learns that her grandmother, or Nai Nai, who still lives in China, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, they decide, to Billi’s dismay, to keep with Chinese custom and withhold from Nai Nai the devastating news. Billie’s cousin’s wedding is pushed up as an excuse for the family to gather in China and say goodbye to grandma – without really saying it, of course.
Unfolding mostly over mouth-watering family meals and wedding preparations, we watch as family members conceal their grief, sometimes unsuccessfully, from the spirited Nai Nai, who’s more worked up about the wedding menu and romantic prospects for Billi than her own mortality. Which is to say that while this is a melancholy movie about differing cultural attitudes towards losing loved ones and Billie’s wrestling with the ethics of the family lie, it’s also a quite funny film, and Wang interweaves comedy and sadness as confidently as Nai Nai still does tai chi in front of her neighbors. A scene in which Billi joins her for the exercise is one of the sweetest.
Wang’s story will already be familiar to listeners of the This American Life podcast; she told it on episode from 2016. Haven’t listened to it myself, but the story will be worth revisiting for those who have thanks to Wang’s evidently instinctual sense for the utility of the film form. A mostly muted pink and blue color scheme synchronizes with the dual tones of humor and sorrow. The tender vocals on Alex Weston’s score breathe empathy for the family’s mourning. Wang’s camera placement reveals a knack for composition and for how to involve us in a scene, such as during the first meal after Billi arrives in China. The camera peers from behind the characters across from whoever is speaking, as if we haven’t yet been trusted to hold back our tears if given a seat at the table (the audience at my screening definitely would have blown it; there were lots of sniffles). And while this is an ensemble film, Awkwafina succeeds as the focal point, her slouches suggesting the weight of the emotional burden she’s shouldering on her Nai Nai’s behalf.
Occasionally, Wang reaches for more feeling than she needs to. Slow motion takes, for example, work against the film’s overall subtlety, as do the last couple shots. Slightly more problematic is that the script simply repeats certain beats rather than building on them. Understandably, Billi can’t help but wonder if anyone else feels as she does that perhaps it’s best to tell Nai Nai, but the conversations that follow her asking everyone from her parents to her grandma’s doctor gradually add less and less texture to the inter-family dynamics and Billi’s discomfort with the lie. But if I said my complaints held me back from really enjoying the movie, then I’d be lying.
–Michael Clawson originally published this review on Letterboxd 08/23/19