The Souvenir. Pain And Glory. This has been some year for excellent, semi-autobiographical works. The best of the lot however, might just be Lulu Wang’s sophomore effort The Farewell, a perfectly-pitched family drama about tradition and the lengths it takes us. Wang, like her 2019 peers Joanna Hogg and Pedro Almodovar, delves deep into the well of her own history in order to craft an honest-to-god gut-wrencher. Amidst a globally destabilising trade war, it seems good can still come out of Chinese-American relations.
‘Based on actual lie’, as the tagline playfully informs us, The Farewell takes its story from a genuine Chinese custom some in the west might find callous, whereby families choose not to inform their loved ones who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness of their fate. As one character puts it bluntly: “Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die”.That matter-of-fact sterility permeates throughout the bittersweet dramedy, but it’s tension with the underlying, arguably misguided empathy behind the decision affords the film a fascinating edge.
In an understated left-turn of a performance, rap star/comedian Awkwafina plays Billi Wang, a New Yorker and unemployed writer who moved to the US in her infancy from China. When she learns her Changchun-based Grandmother Nai Nai is not only dying but is being kept in the dark about her cancer, she feels compelled to go see the woman she was once so close to one last time. Her parents, however, don’t see this as is a good idea and fear her emotions will get the better of her, forcing her to spill the beans.
There is a ruse, you see. A mock wedding is being staged for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to gather the extended family and ensure Nai Nai is none the wiser. After losing out on a prestigious Guggenheim scholarship, a rudderless Billi decides to return to a home she no longer recognizes to say goodbye to loved one who does not know they are leaving.
A fib involving a fatal ailment, eccentric relatives, a fake nuptial ceremony and high-concept set-ups with quirky deceptions: This is the kind of material usually reserved for zany situation comedies, not high-brow indie fare. Wang’s subtle direction ensures it’s all more Dardenne brothers than the Farrellys. Billi’s discomfort with the duplicity and her delicate clashes with relatives form the central struggle of The Farewell. That struggle is, of course, more than just representative of mere family squabbles. Divides between Eastern and Western values, between libertarian ideals of personal responsibility and socialist perspectives on what we owe society are all mixed into the melting pot here. As Billi’s uncle informs her, “You think one’s life belongs to oneself…In the East, a person’s life is part of one’s whole”.
While these are hefty concepts, Wang never loses sight of the intimacy at the heart of the story. The best scenes are those with the family attempting to keep up the veneer of normalcy when Nai Nai is present. There’s humor in the feigned contentment and strained interplay yes, but the unsaid hangs over these moments like a melancholic elephant in the room. We fear that at any moment, the buried sentiments will erupt to surface in a blubbery mess. At times, they do.
The tragicomedy is made all more potent thanks to a stellar turn by Zhao Shuzhen, who plays Nai Nai. Whether it be in questioning her nephew’s sexual prowess or being upset that cigarettes are left at the grave of a husband she insisted gave up smoking before passing (he didn’t), Shuzen delivers the film’s strongest one-liners. In truth, it’s her irrepressible, undeniably endearing ebullience that leaves us most teary eyed. She is every grandmother who forcibly makes themselves matriarch to spite their age.
Nai Nai may be planning a sham wedding but her children’s anxiety over the price of venue implies maybe she’s the one truly in control. A controversial late coda further suggests the last laugh is hers although this arguably undercuts the preceding film’s emotional weight. While Wang veers toward a gentle naturalism, the sharpness of her dialogue is far from undermined. A talkative, familial congregation around a gravestone is side-splitting and the extended climax at the “wedding” deftly weaves between earnest sentimentality and moving comradery.
That aforementioned “unsaid” is left to conversations, both in Mandarian and English. These occur between one or two characters away from a dining table with as much seats as there are repressed feelings in the air. In massage parlors and during midnight smoke breaks, Billi probes at her relatives’ complicated choice as few cracks appear in their resolve. Anyone who has been to a large family gatherings will recognise the creaking niceties in crowded spaces and the disgruntled attitudes revealed in more private ones.
Intergenerational and cultural conflicts do, it should be said, come to the fore. In a particularly acerbic restaurant scene we see two sisters-in-laws trade barbs mercilessly. The subject of their quarrel is the divergent paths chosen for their respective adult children, one having moved to the US and the other remaining at home. In reality, the two are scrutinizing their own life choices in lieu of a stagnant America and the emerging economic powerhouse of China. Nai Nai, present for much of her nation’s bloodied then profitable foray into communism, settles the dispute temporarily and proves to be the adhesive this family needs.
Wang herself does not come down on either side of the overarching debate. Neither the decision to lie nor the case for unvarnished truth is wholly backed here. Rather Wang is imploring us to at least take solace in the why, in the place of deep affection driving the fabrication. Lies are a vital currency for the family in The Farewell. Billi keeps her failed scholarship and money woes to herself, Nai Nai doesn’t disclose an early hospital visit etc. These little white lies are used to spare feelings, to protect parents from shame and to shield others from pain.
Ironically, Wang has exposed an uncomfortable truth: In some families, lies mean love