dir: lulu wang. Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, and Jiang Yongbo. pg cert, 100 mins
The farewell tears your heart out of your chest. then he returns it to you, gently wrapped in cotton. Lulu Wang’s second characteristic is revealing. Powered by mighty distributor a24, aka the insiders of cinematic awesomeness, it arrives with all the fanfare bestowed on a major new talent. In the United States, he had a record-breaking run, earning a higher average per theater than Avengers: Endgame. the buzz is well deserved. Wrapped in all the complexities of immigrant identity and family politics, Farewell is a comedy of bracing warmth and honesty. Simply put, it’s one of the best movies of the year.
This is not the first time Wang has told this story, which is deeply rooted in his own experiences. In 2016, on the NPR podcast This American Life, the writer-director recounted a trip to China to say goodbye to her terminally ill grandmother. her family, however, had given strict instructions that no one should speak of the disease around her. she hadn’t been told about the stage four cancer ravaging her body. the x-ray results of her were dismissed as showing only “benign shadows”. it is a common practice in Chinese families, as it is believed that the stress of diagnosis can only make a person’s condition worse. instead, they all got together under the pretense that they were celebrating her grandson’s wedding. the tears had to be drowned under smiles and laughter, so as not to give away the game.
Wang’s avatar here is billi, a writer from brooklyn who entered her thirties with no money and no prospects. She’s played by Awkwafina, who has so far been known for playing the goofy weirdo – on Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 – or rapping about “doing ass like a g, b***h.” at the farewell, she strips emotionally naked in a surprising way. she is a woman lost at sea, about to lose the only thing that tied her to the past. billi immigrated with her parents from changchun, in northeast china, to new york when she was six years old. she still calls her paternal grandmother (or, in Mandarin, her nai nai) regularly. But when Billi’s parents give her the bad news, they also suggest that she stay home, since she is too Americanized and therefore too emotionally serious: she is destined to ruin the plan. billi gets on a plane anyway.
The trip crushes her and rebuilds her in a thousand ways. Driving through Changchun, she is surprised by the changing skyline, as new apartment blocks slowly eradicate all traces of her childhood. when she finally confronts nai nai, her face contorts in a flash of burning pain. she tries so hard not to cry, she looks physically in pain. her grandmother just shrugs it off and blames it on jet lag. Cornering her parents, Billi demands to know why everyone seems so content to hide her pain. Her mother replies: If she doesn’t cry, does that automatically mean she doesn’t care?
While there has been no shortage of culture shock comedies, more often than not they have focused on the purely superficial. Wang goes straight to the tricky stuff: after all, there is no thornier subject than death. rears its head in a thousand ways, but always with the same patterns of devastation. no family is not affected. Billi balks at the idea of keeping Nai Nai’s illness a secret, considering it would be illegal to do so in the US, but Wang gives her the space to wrestle with that urge, and where she comes from. His relatives see it implicit in the selfishness of the Western lifestyle. “It is our duty to carry this emotional burden for her,” says Ella Haibin’s uncle (Jiang Yongbo). their conversations are strained from all the unspoken tension between them, but they’re also a family that loves each other too much to yell and yell. when billi finally lets it all out, it’s heartbreaking to watch.
we also get a glimpse of what haibin is like, who moved to japan several decades ago. it is a country geographically much closer, but culturally different enough to make you feel like an outsider. It is his son, Hao Hao (Chen Han), who is forced to marry Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), his Japanese girlfriend of three months. We never find out how that happened, but both the bride and groom seem just as puzzled as Billi. Aiko can barely speak Mandarin, so she communicates mostly with encouraging smiles and the vague feeling that she might run out the door at any given moment.
The Farewell is one of those rare and beautiful comedies as hilarious as they are tragic. it is humanity, encompassed. Never is this more evident than when the family visits the grave of Nai Nai’s husband. surrounded by the wails of paid mourners, they offer a few gifts, mainly snacks and alcohol. Billi’s father takes out a cigarette, but Nai Nai insists that he would quit. “Let the man smoke, he is already dead. what else can happen? Haibin answers. It’s hard to say how closely Wang is modeling these characters on her own family, but each one is beautifully sketched, regardless of how much screen time they get.
At the center of all things, of course, is nai nai. She’s the sun at the center of her own solar system and, in many ways, the ultimate matriarch: hustling around town, preparing for a wedding she insists can’t look cheap, scolding Billi for her weight and her diet and organizes the many and gigantic family dinners. Billi might be experiencing the worst culture whiplash of her life, something Wang never offers a solution for, but it’s her love for this formidable woman that always pulls her through.