It can be tempting, especially in a time when everyone seems more divided than ever, to search for similarities between cultures as a way to bring us closer together. In her sophomore film as a director and screenwriter, Lulu Wang takes an entirely different approach.
The Farewell is Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical story of Billi, a young Chinese-American woman played by Awkwafina, whose Nai Nai (paternal grandmother) is diagnosed with possibly-terminal cancer. Though it seems ridiculous to Billi, her family follows traditional Chinese custom and decides not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis, instead setting up an elaborate fake wedding as an excuse to gather the family in China for one last visit with the ailing grandmother. Over-the-top but deeply relatable hijinks ensue as Nai Nai takes control of the wedding planning and Billi grapples with the moral implications of withholding such life-altering information.
From the start of the movie, it is obvious that this is a labor of love for Lulu Wang. The script is tightly crafted, masterfully finding laugh-out-loud moments in the midst of intense family drama. The family’s plot seems contrived and ridiculous to a Western audience, and Wang wastes no time exploiting that fact for entertainment and humor. But she also pulls no punches, exploring both the sticky issues that arise from the family’s deception and the unique elements of Chinese culture that make it easier to understand. She doesn’t judge Billi or her family for their views, but carefully dissects the complicated context behind their differing perspectives. By the end, the movie offers a heartwarming message about accepting those you love even if you don’t completely understand their actions.
Every other aspect of the movie also exudes love and attention from Wang. The cinematography is of a caliber not often seen in comedy-dramas, carefully using striking lighting, color, and shot composition to create a decidedly unique look. Wang gives us a moody and nostalgic vision of Beijing, so much so that the characters’ internal struggles seem to bleed into their surroundings. Wang also trusts her actors with lingering shots of both emotional and funny moments, and with good reason. Awkwafina absolutely shines as someone rediscovering her family’s culture, finding humor in her lackluster Mandarin and painfully American perspectives. Zhao Shuzhen is also exceptional as Nai Nai, giving a performance sure to resonate strongly with those of us with funny yet controlling and ever-concerned grandparents.
In telling a deeply personal story interlaced with humor and drama, Wang highlights the cultural divides that permeate the lives of Chinese-Americans and walks us through the complicated process of approaching those divides with an open mind and heart. The specific circumstances and the decisions made by Billi’s family are initially as baffling to a non-Chinese audience as they are to Billi. Yet, they ring true because of how honestly the film explores its very human characters. The Farewell is one of the best movies of the year, and easily the best of the summer.