Friday Flicks July 19: “The Farewell”

M.V. MoorheadJuly 19, 2019
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At Harkins Camelview:

The Farewell—“Based on an Actual Lie” is the promotional line for this family drama, written and directed by Lulu Wang. The lie in question is directed at Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), an elderly lady living comfortably in Changchun, China; she’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but her family is keeping the news from her. They gather at her home in China, supposedly for the wedding of her grandson, but this is just a hasty pretext to say goodbye to her.

The focus of the film is Nai Nai’s adoring granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), who has lived in New York since she was a child. She’s devastated by the news, and maybe even more flabbergasted by the charade, but over the wishes of her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) — who think she won’t be able to hide her emotions from Nai Nai — she shows up for the wedding, and plays along.

The story is autobiographical; Wang originally related it on NPR’s This American Life. Apparently the practice of hiding a diagnosis from a seriously ill family member is not uncommon in China, and Wang uses it to discuss broad-stroke differences between eastern and western mindsets. But she also keeps the drama specific; we see that Billi’s sorrow isn’t just about the idea of losing her grandmother, but also of the dissolving link between her Chinese heritage and her identity as an American.

The film is being marketed as a comedy-drama, and there are indeed many funny moments. But Wang doesn’t play it cute; she faces the sadness in the story head-on. Long-standing familial resentments are depicted with unsentimental clarity and realism, but without melodrama, and also without cyncism: The family’s underlying love is fully acknowledged.

Every member of the cast is excellent, but The Farewell is powered by two luminous performances: of Zhao Shuzhen as the formidable, beautiful Nai Nai, who takes an obvious relish in playing the matriarch, and of Awkwafina. Her star turn here isn’t a performance you’ve seen before, even for her; this isn’t the heroine’s wacky, quip-spitting friend in Crazy Rich Asians. Shoulders hunched, head slung forward, and a look of deep, determined bereavement on her face, Awkwafina makes Billi’s grief a palpable force, and it renders the final seconds of The Farewell intensely touching.