This film is rolling out slowly across the country and is well worth a look. Its story encompasses family love, family tension, and the push-pull and east-west conflicts in family members separated for a generation on different continents. It is alive with humor and sorrow and love, a moving piece of work.
The trailer above gives the basic outline. Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen,) a widowed matriarch, has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and is expected to die within a few months. Nai Nai’s sons, who live in New York and Japan, are informed by their aunt, Little Nai Nai (effectively Little Grandma, played by Lu Hong,) and the sons agree not to tell their mother this bad news because such is “not Chinese.”
When Billi (Awkwafina,) Nai Nai’s granddaughter in New York, is told of the plan, she objects that Nai Nai deserves to know the truth. She has fond memories of her grandmother, whom she has not seen since the age of six, and she feels the conflict between her Chinese and American identities.
The family sets up a farewell reunion in China — saying instead that they are gathering for the wedding of Billi’s cousin and his pregnant Japanese fiancée. Billi’s parents order her to stay home, however, because they fear her sadness will reveal the secret and make her grandmother’s life more difficult.
After Mom and Pop leave, Billi changes her mind. She gets on a later plane and surprises the family at Nai Nai’s apartment in Changchun, where happy talk abounds.
What follows is mostly the story of Nai Nai and her favorite grandchild getting reacquainted. Nai Nai is charming, cheerful, preoccupied with planning a fine wedding banquet and quite certain that her “new medicine” is making her feel much healthier. She calls Billi “stupid girl” several times, which in Nai Nai-speak means “beloved child.”
For her part, Billi finds the city of her birth is much changed but the grandmother she remembers is not. Meanwhile her father and uncle still have much in common after a separation of 25 years. There are excursions to visit Nai Nai’s doctor and her husband’s grave, both in Chinese style, and finally a long wedding feast with many guests and many diverting moments and, also, where Nai Nai promises an even bigger party when Billi gets married.
Through it all, Billi struggles with the original tension — whether to speak the truth about her grandmother’s disease in the American fashion, or “to carry the emotional burden” as her Chinese elders expect her to do.
The writer/director of “The Farewell” is Lulu Wang, a talented Chinese immigrant raised in the U.S., and the plot is drawn from an experience in her own life. The opening credits say it is “based on an actual lie,” a comment whose meaning is revealed much later.
The film is mostly spoken Mandarin with English subtitles — and, yes, Billi apologizes for her limited fluency. Another version, with Mandarin dubbing of English speech, is being readied for release in China. It will be interesting to learn whether it strikes a similar chord there.
This Chinese-Korean actress from Queens is coming into her own. Her origins are humor — she says her “government name” is Nora Lum — and she was fun to watch in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians. Earlier, she was the scene-stealing pickpocket in the gender-switched version of “Ocean’s 8.” Now she’s demonstrated she also can handle serious roles very well.
Before launching her film career, she blended rap and humor, as demonstrated in this piece from her 2014 album, “Yellow Ranger.”