Farewell, The (2019)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/09/19 07:46:04
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: Lulu Wang's "The Farewell" cheekily announces that it is "based on an actual lie", but that's about as far as the filmmakers ever seem to go in terms of treating their story as screwy and outrageous. That's mostly for the best; the film works because everybody's good intentions are not actually misplaced, even if they are counter-intuitive enough for the whole thing to be very funny. It's the sort of film that could have wound up nothing in trying to find a space between being somber and farce, but instead shows how the two in the right balance can feel authentic.In China, an old lady visits the doctor with her sister, and the news is not good: She's got stage IV lung cancer, probably leaving her just months to live. Her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), whose parents emigrated to New York City when she was a small child, takes it like a blow, but is even more shocked when father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin) tell her that Nai Nai (Zhou Shuzhen) hasn't been told - the feeling is that people who know they are dying stop living their lives - and the family is staging a fake wedding between her cousin Haohao (Han Chen) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) as an excuse for the whole family to gather with her one last time. Except Billi - they're concerned that she won't be able to keep up the charade. She says nuts to that and goes anyway.
By its very nature, this movie is going to rest on the connection audience make with Billi, and probably would have even if Wang hadn't made her wearing her heart on her sleeve part of the story. Happily Awkwafina has a really delightfully expressive face, and that carries The Farewell more than just about anything else. Because the audience is told at the beginning that she's supposed to be an open book, they're inclined to focus on her and she never disappoints, funny and warm and very confused about how the values of her American and Chinese backgrounds intersect. It's not just that she's well-able to show the overpowering delight and sadness that the story calls for, but she ponders things well, and handles the holding-back nicely, sometimes obviously choking back tears but just as often having Billi seemingly not certain about just what her expression should be.
The rest of the cast is good, too. Tzi Ma is a fairly familiar face - he has played a lot of villains and the like - but what he does here that's great is the reflection of his co-star in terms of just barely holding it together, and while I can't entirely judge how they sound in Mandarin, their banter when they drop into English is perfect, always tinged with an extra sardonic edge. The whole cast seems dead on, sketching out folks with full lives beyond the small bit we see, with Zhou Shuzhen sparkling as Nai Nai: It's easy to see why she's beloved, and she's got a fantastic ability to find the spot where there's seemingly no apparent reason to doubt that she's taking everything at face value but is also wise and mischievous enough to figure everything out and play along. She and Wang never do anything close to tipping their hands on this, but also know the movie doesn't work if people feel like Nai Nai is a fool.
It also works because Lulu Wang has a concept where she could go full screwball and never does. It's a weird situation and funny moments pop up naturally but never get pushed, which lets everything including the jokes feel more authentic. She also strongly communicates what it can mean to be an immigrant and specifically Chinese-American; Billi clearly has a foot in both China and America, though they seldom feel as if they're in opposition, even if they can be difficult to reconcile.It's a charming little film that could have been something less if it had strayed from the path Wang takes, which is sentimental without ever being simplistic.
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