A sweet naturalism is brought to China in a deeply felt family framed, comparable in its emotional output to Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club. Or in some respects to a low-budgeted darling like Little Miss Sunshine.
Writer and director Lulu Wang endows much grace and humanity to The Farewell (often in Mandarin though multi-lingual with subtitles) from her own experiences using a conflict over one’s heritage to noticeable effect.
With hardly extra polish from the production end and a story and ensemble very much in-sync in what exudes universality, the Western (read: candid) sensibilities of struggling New Yorker Billi (rising actress and hip-hop artist Awkwafina — sounds like Pepsi-produced bottled water) are compromised when returning home to her native Asian land. When learning of a terminal pulmonary illness of her grandmother “Nai Nai” Billi’s sullen, unassured, and inward demeanor is more pronounced.
The tension that arises comes from Nai Nai’s clan not letting her in on her grave diagnosis, permissible by law in their Eastern culture as a way to promote a continued quality of life for whatever period may remain (to enjoy a ‘last time’ with her). The palliative ruse is accentuated by a faux wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his three-month girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara). So, the adroit Wang has much in the offing to instill much wit and spirit.
The fact of the matter is Billi doesn’t like how gung-ho here family is in their fastidious means (much more than strategizing a surprise birthday party) for the nuptials, and she’s dying to clue her beloved Nai Nai (a zesty Zhao Shuzhen) in on the goings-on. Because Wang delivers it all with much respect to her estimable cast and their situation what is so well told becomes all the more telling.
A surprising Awkwafina does a turnabout from smaller, if showy roles in last year’s late summer hit Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 to etch much nuance into Billi as nostalgia also emerges in her sensitively wrought portrait. It works in part because of efficiently involving discourse with her parents — Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). Chen is a big plus on the levity side. It’s hard not to find the developments in The Farewell to be less than arresting especially through the able presence of trying to cope with moral relativism.