GREG'S GRADE: A-
"The Farewell" is a truly Chinese American film.
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, it takes a uniquely Chinese scenario — the matriarch (Zhao Shuzhen) of a large family is diagnosed with cancer, given only months to live, and her family reunites to say goodbye while hiding the diagnosis from her — and filters it through the American perspective of Billi (Awkwafina), the daughter of immigrants Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin).
Billi's parents, fearing she is too emotional and will reveal the lie to her grandmother — or Nai Nai, as she calls her — insist she remain in New York City while all her relatives gather in China under the pretense of her cousin's (Chen Han) hastily planned wedding. Billi, though, can't resist and makes the trip anyway. Once there, she's overcome with sadness at the thought of losing Nai Nai — whom she speaks to regularly by phone from New York, even though her Mandarin is a little rusty — and wracked with guilt over the deception.
At seemingly every turn, a family member lectures Billi on how important it is not to reveal the truth to Nai Nai while she happily prepares for the upcoming wedding. As Billi's uncle, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), tells her, such a ruse is common practice in China. In fact, Nai Nai participated in a similar one herself when her husband was terminally ill. In the West, Haibin explains, one's life is his or her own. Chinese culture, however, is about the larger group more than the individual, he says, and the lie allows the family to bear the emotional burden of Nai Nai's imminent passing instead of forcing that on Nai Nai in her final days.
Based on Wang's own experiences with her grandmother, "The Farewell" drips with authenticity as it examines — and gives equal weight and respect to — the disparate traditions and values of its two colliding cultures. Though emotions run high and many tears are shed, Wang never overplays her hand, letting the moments come naturally and avoiding the scenery-chewing, Oscar-bait scenes that typically accompany this kind of heavy material.
Awkwafina, who made her big splash at the movies last year with "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Ocean's Eight," gives a compelling, emotionally raw performance at the film's center. Billi's ignorance of Chinese tradition serves as a gateway to the story for American audiences, and the connection we naturally form enhances our empathy for her in what she sees as a no-win scenario.
While Wang doesn't quite find her way around the (necessary) lack of a true climax, the film hardly suffers for it. Her goals — and accomplishments — are loftier and more complex than simply following traditional story beats.
Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking. 98 minutes.
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