“Based on an actual lie” is the text that sets audiences up rather nicely for the lilting tone of Sundance hit The Farewell, the deeply personal and semi-autobiographical second feature from American writer and director Lulu Wang.
Hoping to capitalise on the representational ground gained by last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, and already a critical and commercial hit in the US thanks to an A-grade festival premiere, A24 acquisition and $17m+ box office, The Farewell deftly balances comedy and melancholy to superb effect. The film revolves around Billi (Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8’s Awkwafina, who really should be in Best Actress conversations this awards season), a drifting 30-year-old New Yorker who moved to America from China when she was little.
Struggling to pay her rent and recently rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship, Billi jumps at the opportunity to head back to her homeland. Unfortunately, her return is under a cloud – her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal lung cancer. More upsetting still for Billi is the fact that her family have chosen not to tell Nai Nai (Mandarin for paternal grandmother) that the end is near. As someone caught between Eastern and Western values, Billi is dismayed by the subterfuge, particularly when she’s told that a wedding is even being staged for her cousin and his new Japanese girlfriend (of just three months) as a ruse to congregate the family without arousing Nai Nai’s suspicion.
Flying to Changchun on credit, Billi struggles to put on a brave face, barely reacting to Nai Nai’s well-intentioned jabs about her weight and “round butt”. Having lived through similar events, Wang proves adept at realising these awkward initial exchanges, eyes glancing guiltily around the dinner table as wantons and other fried delicacies are shared out and devoured. Language is a constant barrier for many of the family members: while Billi can just about get by on her Mandarin, the soon-to-be-wed Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his muted Japanese fiancée, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), appear completely overawed by proceedings.
Billi finds herself constantly fighting the urge to reveal the truth, even after a whispered dressing-down from her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo). (“You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” he explains.) At the same time, her parents are also struggling with the emotional burden: her mother (Diana Lin) initially comes across as a cold authoritarian, while her father (Tzi Ma) has a fatty liver and is all-to-prone to bouts of drinking and depression. But Confucian tradition still has a stronghold even in modern China, and what begins as an external moral conflict with her elders becomes evermore internalised as Billi wrestles with her own mixed identity.
The extended family does feel a little underwritten and slips into stereotypes at times (the aloof aunt, the drunk and emotional wedding speaker etc), but these are minor flaws in an otherwise compelling, spiky exploration of familial duty and cultural heritage. Those expecting another bright, glossy Crazy Rich Asians imitator should probably look elsewhere. However, those looking for a complex, funny and touching family will be more than rewarded for seeking this out.