Shuzhen Zhou and Awkwafina in The Farewell (Photo: A24)
*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Lulu Wang
STARS Awkwafina, Tzi Ma
Deftly stealing scenes last summer with her comic turns in both Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, Awkwafina adds another layer to her burgeoning film career with a lovely central performance in The Farewell.
A satisfying seriocomedy that’s based on a true story (one already featured on a 2016 episode of the radio show This American Life, “In Defense of Ignorance: What You Don’t Know”), The Farewell finds writer-director Lulu Wang drawing from her own experiences to relate the tale of an Asian-American family coming to grips with a potential loss of a loved one. Struggling NYC resident Billi (Awkwafina) has learned from her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) that her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) back in China, whom she affectionately calls Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and only has a few months to live. The entire family, including Haiyan’s brother (Yongbo Jiang) in Japan, has determined that they won’t break the bad news to the elderly woman, thus allowing her to spend her last days in blissful ignorance. Billie doesn’t understand or agree with this decision, and as the entire clan gathers in China to be with Nai Nai (under the pretense of attending an upcoming wedding), she finds it difficult to maintain this lie.
The act of not informing someone about their own health — particularly when a fatal diagnosis is involved — is a hot-button issue, and the strength of The Farewell is how it patiently explores both sides of the divide, pitting Billi’s attitude that it’s unfair to harbor such a secret against a revered Chinese tradition of the family keeping the emotional burden to themselves. The concealment is tearing Billie apart, and Awkwafina is exceptional as she mixes her character’s thin veneer of surface cheer with a roiling inner turmoil.
If this makes the movie sound grim, it’s anything but, as the greater focus is on the loving relationship between Billie and her Nai Nai. Zhou is wonderful as the sprightly and good-humored senior, and I chuckled every time she called Billie “stupid child.” There are also other dynamics at play — including but not limited to a look at East vs. West, the strains between parent and offspring, and matters of immigration and assimilation. If the film ultimately runs out of time to tackle all of these issues in the manner they deserve, Wang at least acknowledges their importance as she weaves her way toward an ending that might feel rushed but nevertheless allows the picture to bow out with grace, dignity, and, for some viewers, a final jolt.