One may chuckle at the line on screen at the start of “The Farwell” informing us that the film is “based on an actual lie,” a reverse of all the films that claim to be based on true stories. But there is truth here too—“The Farewell” really is based on a lie. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is mostly set in China and stems from Wang’s own story about her grandmother not being told that she had been diagnosed as being fatally ill.
What emerges is a very warm family drama that, while very serious in depicting Chinese culture and attitudes, has amusing elements as well. It features numerous convincing portrayals, including one by Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina. She previously appeared in a wildly over-the-top comic role in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Here she gets a chance to show her serious acting skill in a touching dramatic role as Billi, a young woman who was taken from China to New York by her parents at an early age and has missed the loving ties she felt with her grandmother, Nai Nai.
Billi doesn’t reveal that she has been turned down for a fellowship to advance her music career when she visits her parents. Sensing something wrong, she worms out of her mother that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Billi is appalled at the decision not to tell Nai Nai and feels it is morally wrong.
Thus a basic issue is raised, a question that many families face, with some feeling strongly that they would want to know how much time is left, and others feeling the victim should be spared anguish. Take your pick as to your own opinion. In the film one family member explains his Chinese attitude that by telling Nai Nai a burden would be placed on her, but by keeping the news secret the burden would be on those who must carry it themselves in devotedly caring for the doomed person.
An elaborate ruse is developed, with a fake wedding planned that would be the occasion for family members to come together to have a farewell visit with Nai Nai, who in turn would have the joy of a reunion without knowing its purpose. Zhao Shuzhen, who plays Nai Nai with much warmth and twinkling spirit, gives an impression that she may know, or at least suspect, more than her family gives her credit for.
A particular strength of the film lies in its depiction of the upscale family with attention to individual stories and attitudes. Wang provides an in-depth look at the prevailing culture and the local environment. Her filming was done in her grandmother’s city of Changchun. There is also insight into the differences between life for those in China and Chinese-Americans. Billi, for example doesn’t think she speaks Chinese well, and although firmly placed in the United States, bemoans how she has been missing all of the things from her childhood that she lost when her parents moved to America.
Among those providing effective portrayals are Diana Lin as Billi’s mother, who believes in keeping painful emotions to herself, and Tzi Ma as Billi’s father, who goes along on the same track. They don’t even want to take Billi back to China for the reunion in fear that her sad-sack expressions will give the secret away. Billi, who gets there on her own, turns out to be stronger than they expect.
There is a kicker at the end of the film that I won’t spoil for you. By that time one can have become deeply involved in the real achievement of the film springing from the plot—a visit with an extended Chinese family affectionately and intimately observed with strengths and faults illuminated so that one may be able to feel having come to know and respect this collection of people trying to do the right things in life according to their individual and cultural views. An A24 release. Reviewed July 28, 2019.