Had Joanna Hogg not decided to release the force that is Honor Swinton-Byrne upon the world at Sundance 2019, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell would have easily taken home our “best of the festival” award or whatever equivalent we here at Vanyaland would have felt comfortable bestowing upon it. It’s a sweet and sad dramedy about one Chinese family dealing with the potential death of their family’s matriarch, grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who has been diagnosed with lung cancer, though she doesn’t know it just yet. Her family — which has spread out of China to places like Japan and the U.S. — returns to their homeland to be with her during her last days, and to participate in a time-honored tradition: Ensuring that their loved one can live out their last days in peace unburdened with the knowledge that she’s about to die. So the family concocts a reason (a grandchild’s wedding) to be together and to celebrate with her, and the push and pull of Eastern cultural tradition and Western values for the U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina), our protagonist, causes her some amount of moral confusion.
It’s wrong, she reasons, for one to be lied to as they’re approaching their death, but as she spends time in China alongside the rest of her family, she begins to discover just how entrenched this notion is: Nai Nai did the exact same thing when her husband passed away, and the rest of the family played along then as well. And, in observing the family stifling their tears and their emotions, only for them to emerge at the most inopportune moments, she begins to understand that this isn’t easy for the rest of them as well. So The Farewell’s conflict mostly comes through in Billi’s internal culture-clash, and it’s a conflict that Awkwafina is able to sell well. She’s never had the chance, really, as an actor to express a more complicated range of emotion than what she was initially famous for — minor comic relief — and her work here, especially in a dual-language role (most of the family speaks Mandarin as well as English, and Awkwafina navigates both with aplomb), is the kind of career-redefining role that plenty of ambitious comics hope for but never achieve. The rest of the ensemble is uniformly fantastic, each able to navigate a tone that shifts as dramatically as it might in reality.
Behind the camera, Wang manages to find her perfect pitch early on, introducing us to this family and their predicament with equal parts tragic drama and earned comedy, and she then develops the film’s sense of humor in tandem with its more dramatic elements to the point where an achingly poignant confrontation can be happening at the exact same time as something that’s almost disarmingly funny. There’s one scene in particular that I’m thinking of, in which Billi gets into an argument with her mother about her mother’s lack of grief while the two of them are helping the father, drunk from a night out on the town with his family, take off his pants so that he can go to bed. It prevents one element in this mixture from overwhelming the other, preventing the film from descending into morose tragedy or broad farce.
What results is a masterfully executed and earnestly-felt (well-informed by Wang’s own lived experience, though that’s not necessarily a given here) look at a complicated and painful situation for this family, one worthy of comparison to filmmakers like Hirokazu Kore-eda. The Farewell is sure to be a massive hit whenever it hits theaters later this year, given just how expansive its emotional range is, and how accessibly it renders a culture clash that some viewers might not be aware of, but will most definitely be compelled and moved by.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of Sundance Institute.