• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The Farewell is a love letter to the grandparent-grandchild relationship

directed by Lulu Wang

Lulu Wang's story of farewelling a beloved matriarch rings true despite its characters having to tell many fibs.

It’s a movie about a visit to grandma’s place. There is a lot of eating, even before we get to the wedding banquet. Whatever the modest budget was for this indie family drama set in New York and Changchun, China, it’s likely the bill for on-screen catering took up a fair amount of it. But the sound of your own rumbling stomach may get a melodic accompaniment – a sweet tune played on your uncomplaining heartstrings as The Farewell delivers its sad, funny, unembroidered story of a Chinese family gathering to say goodbye to their matriarch, even though the elderly Nai Nai doesn’t know she’s on the way out.

The second feature by Chinese-American director Lulu Wang is autobiographical and, as the opening titles say, “Based on an actual lie”. The story is inspired by her own grandmother’s terminal-cancer diagnosis. In China, the rules about patients being fully informed of their medical status are rather different than in the West, and the family decided not to tell Wang’s grandmother the bad news.

In her movie, Wang is represented by Billi, a struggling New York writer who has maintained a close relationship with Nai Nai, having lived with her in China before she and her parents emigrated to the US.

She’s played by rapper-comedian Awkwafina, the motormouth scene-stealer from Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8. Here, she meets the movie on its own subtle, subdued level. It’s a lovely, restrained performance that, when it shares the screen with Zhao Shuzhen as her proud, loving fusspot of a grandmother, becomes the genuine heart of the film.

Told not to come to China to attend a cousin’s hastily arranged wedding, which is doubling as family reunion, Billi maxes out her credit card to follow her parents to Changchun. Once there, the extended clan worry that her unrepressed American side will tell Nai Nai the truth. “It’s our job to carry this emotional burden for her,” her uncle tells her.

The wedding becomes Nai Nai’s purpose in life, although there’s something amiss about Billi’s mostly silent groom-to-be cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), and his equally mute Japanese fiancée, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). As the banquet and its emotional, drunken speeches deliver opportunities for the ruse to fall apart, The Farewell keeps its composure. It’s a movie that is impressive for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t turn into a culture-clash comedy between the returning migrants and Chinese-resident parts of the family. There is, however, a tense discussion, inevitably around yet another lavish meal, about immigration, educational opportunities and loyalty to China that feels like eavesdropping on a conversation probably being had by millions.

And neither does it turn into a sentimental deathbed melodrama. Wang does add a real-life coda that breaks the melancholy spell of the movie’s ending, a little. The only other artifice in the whole movie is the music, especially a bluesy cover of Leonard Cohen’s Come Healing and a Chinese version of the Harry Nilsson heartbreaker Without You to go out on.

But even they help make this a poignant love letter to the grandparent-grandchild relationship. That tribute might be played out against a culturally specific background, but the authenticity makes The Farewell all the more resonant and enjoyable.



Video: Roadshow Films New Zealand

This article was first published in the September 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.