The Farewell is a quiet film that builds and builds and builds into a wonderful exploration of belonging, loss, family love, crab vs lobster, and hiding feelings, even though it may be tough to hide yours and you’ll shed a tear or two. I know I did.
It is written and directed by Lulu Wang, who was born in Beijing but emigrated with her family to America when she was six, and it is loosely a memoir. The film opens in Changchun, a city in China’s northeast, with an elderly woman being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given maybe three months to live.
This is Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), or ‘Grandma’, and she doesn’t know she is going to die because her family have chosen not to tell her, as appears to be the Chinese custom. (Her sister, Little Nai Nai, played by Wang’s real-life great-aunt, tells her that the CT scans show only ‘benign shadows’, then shoos her from the hospital. Later, the family will even doctor test results. They are very determined on the not-telling front.)
Meanwhile, in New York, we have her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (a standout performance from the rapper Awkwafina), who is close to Nai Nai even though they haven’t seen each other since Billi left with her parents as a child. A cousin’s wedding is hastily planned so that everybody can return to China under the guise of a celebration that is, in fact, a farewell. Nai Nai is thrilled to have everyone sitting around her dining table once again and, my goodness, the feasts that are prepared. You will seriously want to get up and lick the screen. (I saw the film in Soho, cut through Chinatown on my way home, and bought two hulking crabs from the Chinese grocery store for dinner. Just had to.)
Everyone feigns happiness but can Billi, who has to navigate both her American and Chinese sides, go along with it? Shouldn’t Nai Nai know the truth? No, an uncle tells her. The family are ‘bearing the emotional burden for her’. To say anything would be selfish, borne of an individualism that is the American way but not our way. Ultimately, Billi must decide which culture to honour, or how to reconcile the two.
This is a lonely, difficult place to be, and Awkwafina’s powerfully understated performance conveys this with sensitivity and grace. No matter what she is doing — shopping, helping Nai Nai upstairs, attending a bizarre pre-wedding photo shoot or at a mad spa session — you sense the tremendous grief underneath.
The family is brought wonderfully to life by all its characters. Nai Nai is jolly and kind but no pushover. (She is horrified to discover the wedding caterers will be serving crab and not the lobster as promised; her feelings are certainly not hidden in this instance.) Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), sometimes drinks to cope while her mother, Lu Jian (Diana Lin), elegantly explains that not showing emotions does not have to mean not having them. Then there’s poor Hao Hao (Chen Han), the hapless cousin who has been coerced into marrying his nearly silent Japanese girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara) of only a few months. Emotions do leak out one way or another. Hao Hao, for example, weeps at his own wedding while Billi has no appetite and can barely eat any of the amazing food put in front of her. Which seems especially tragic.
The meandering narrative is sometimes painful, but also sometimes funny. And sometimes it is both. A visit to Billi’s grandfather’s grave is painful and funny, and it’s painful and funny when Nai Nai has to go to the hospital. Here, a dishy young doctor who studied in the UK discusses her terminal condition with Billi in English, while Nai Nai, who can’t understand a word, tries to do a spot of matchmaking for her granddaughter: ‘Dr Song, let me ask you, are you married?’ I properly laughed.
This is never sentimental, and it does not offer the kind of closure we are used to. There are no grand declarations or tear-stained confrontations, as it’s not Downton, mercifully. And if you think grandma knows the truth and is fooling everybody else, you will need to think again, as it’s just not clichéd in this way.
There is a twist at the very end — stay seated for the credits — that’s brilliant because you won’t have seen it coming at all. And along the way? You’ll shed a tear or two.