The Farewell is mainly about the different ways in which societies around the world face up to the concept of impending death. If this sounds forbidding, don’t be misled. Lulu Wang’s charming and wryly amusing film examines its central theme with good humour and just a dash of poignancy.
Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York City, where she’s trying to make headway as an author and has just been rejected for a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin), emigrated to America years ago and have made their lives there. But, when they suddenly announce they are heading back home to Changchun to attend the wedding of Billi’s young cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen), and suggest that Billi should stay in America to pursue her studies, she smells a rat.
Soon enough, the awful truth comes out. Billi’s beloved Grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zao), has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and the wedding is simply a ruse to get the whole family together one last time. But everyone thinks that Billi, with her forthright Western ways, will be unable to keep this a secret – and, for the Chinese side of the family, it is unthinkable to reveal the truth in this situation. Billi goes to Changchun anyway, and finds herself wandering disconsolately through the elaborate wedding preparations, torn between keeping schtum and blurting out the truth.
This is an autobiographical tale and Wang, who also wrote the screenplay, depicts the wedding in all its convoluted complexity. I cringe even as I laugh at the ludicrous antics and the ridiculous lengths people are prepared to go to to ensure that Nai Nai never catches on. I also find myself salivating at the absolute blitzkreig of colourful food that’s on display. In one scene, the diners are surrounded by a carousel of sumptuous dishes that trundle serenely around them, each one looking more delectable than the last.
Awkwafina (who was surely the best thing about the otherwise rather awful Crazy Rich Asians) is a compelling presence here and, making her American flm debut, Shuzen Zao is a delight as the seemingly indominatable Nai Nai.
There’s a snippet of ‘real life’ information at the film’s conclusion that sends me out of the cinema with a smile on my face.