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The Farewell

The Farewell is the sophomore feature of writer/producer/director Lulu Wang, based loosely on events in her own life. While the film is primarily in Mandarin, the dialogue weaves between English and Mandarin in a highly unusual fashion. This is also a starring vehicle for Awkwafina, primarily known to filmgoers as the scene-stealing comic relief of Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians.

Put it all together and what do we get? A sweet and darkly comical family dramedy.

Our stage is primarily set in Changchun, China. The plot is centered around a wedding between Hao Hao (Chen Han) and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who’ve been going out for all of three months. The both of them come off as hapless dolts, perhaps because Hao Hao was raised in Japan and barely speaks any Chinese, and his betrothed speaks no language other than Japanese.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the married couple because they’re not the main characters. It would be more accurate to call them the comic relief. In point of fact, this whole rushed marriage is literally a distraction.

See, Nai Nai (that’s Chinese for “paternal grandmother”, played by Zhao Shuzhen) has just been diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer. Thus the marriage is arranged as a convenient excuse for a family reunion so everyone can get a few last happy memories with Nai Nai. And the grandmother herself is none the wiser.

To clarify: This woman is dying and her own family has collectively decided not to tell her. Hilarity ensues.

To start with, this is a famously thorny issue in real-world bioethics. If a patient is absolutely certain to have some chronic disease that’s completely incurable and eventually fatal, does it do any good to inform the patient? Even if the patient doesn’t want to know? After all, what’s the point in worrying about something that can’t be prevented? And if some miracle happens and the illness goes away for whatever reason, all that time and worry was for nothing.

Of course, the obvious counterpoint is that if the patient doesn’t know about it, they can’t do anything to prepare for it. They can’t settle their affairs or say their goodbyes or cross any last items off the bucket list. Moreover, how can the patient agree to any kind of treatment when informed consent isn’t an option?

Here in America, at least, that conundrum has been resolved: Patients have every right to their own medical history, in full and without any alterations or omissions. Period. It appears, however, that Chinese culture has a very different take, more focused on community and family. Basically, everyone bottles up their emotions and keeps the truth to themselves so Nai Nai can better enjoy what time she has left. They’re shouldering that emotional burden so she doesn’t have to, you see.

Hell, even Nai Nai knows that something is wrong with her — she’s got Stage Four cancer, for fuck’s sake, of course she’s not feeling great. Yet she still smiles and carries on like nothing is wrong because she doesn’t want to worry anyone.

The obvious drawback is the toxic undercurrent between every character in this movie. Everyone is carrying a terrible secret from their loved ones, and it’s tearing them up inside because they can’t communicate. They can’t show whatever anguish they’re feeling, and they can’t talk about what they’re going through or why they’re going through it. There’s even a point when one character breaks down and admits that they can’t tell Nai Nai the truth just because it’s too hard. Alas, nobody asks the obvious follow-up question: Are they doing this out of tradition, or cowardice?

So where does Awkwafina fit into all of this? Excellent question, I’m so glad you asked. She plays Billi, our protagonist and stand-in for the writer/director. She was born in China and speaks fluent Mandarin, but she’s lived in the States and spoken in English since she was six. She hasn’t been to China in ages, but she has many beloved childhood memories of the homeland and she keeps in regular contact with her beloved Nai Nai. Billi has her own apartment in New York City, but she frequently visits her parents’ house, and of course her parents are hardcore Chinese.

Even after a lifetime of living in both worlds, it’s clear that Billi is still figuring herself out. After all, it’s hard enough for a young independent woman in New York to try and make a living for herself as a writer. Never mind all the pressure from two different cultures to pay the rent, find a husband, and so on.

Of course things reach a whole new level when Billi goes to China, and she’s pressured by her family into dealing with lung cancer in a way that would be straight-up illegal in America. She hasn’t been raised in this culture, nor has she been raised to bottle up her emotions like her family has, so nobody thinks she can handle the pressure. She loves her family, so she’ll put up with this bullshit as much as she has to, but she doesn’t like this arrangement and she’s taking every chance she’s got to make her opinion known. In turn, this leads to passive-aggressive sniping about how Billi isn’t as Chinese as the rest of her family.

Remember that toxic undercurrent I was talking about earlier? Yeah, the rest of the family might not like to admit that they’re suffering through Nai Nai’s illness, but they’re pretty clearly taking it out on Billi.

Then again, Billi has her own secrets. She just got turned down for a huge fellowship and she can’t bring herself to tell the family. Sure, it’s nothing on the scale of terminal cancer, but she’s still keeping a secret from her family because she doesn’t want to worry them, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and she’s too ashamed of the truth. Hypocrisy, much?

This all might sound like a heavy film, and it is indeed heavy subject matter. Even so, the various secrets and white lies lead to a steady flow of dramatic irony from start to finish. The funniest scenes in the movie are powered by everything the audience knows that the characters don’t. I can think of one or two great wedding speeches in the climax that are great cases in point. We’ve also got an ingenious scene between Billi and an English-speaking doctor, talking openly and candidly about Nai Nai’s condition while the patient herself can’t understand a word. But my personal favorite spoiler-free example would be Nai Nai teaching her breathing exercises to Billi. The same exercises that keep Nai Nai healthy, you see.

The entire cast is aces. I can’t possibly heap enough praise onto the actors for keeping these characters 100 percent sympathetic without ever completely absolving them of the manipulative dishonest bullshit they commit. It’s patently obvious that these people are not operating on any kind of logic, but their hearts are in the right place and they’re deep in mourning (however much they refuse to show it). Thus the film has its distinctly bittersweet flavor.

That said, it’s Awkwafina who makes this darkly ironic material work so well. It’s impressive how she delivers such a nuanced and authentic performance, especially in contrast with the over-the-top clowns she’s played in previous films. She’s fantastic at making the audience laugh without compromising the film’s heart, making her objections known without ever once coming off as whiny or complaining. Billi’s history and relationship with Nai Nai are the core of the film, and both actors (Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhou) sell it perfectly.

I have no problem giving The Farewell a full recommendation. It’s darkly funny and yet heartfelt. It’s a portrayal of Chinese culture that’s detailed and respectful, yet uncompromising. Awkwafina’s performance may not be enough to get her an Oscar win or an instant spot on the A-list, but it’s easily worth a nomination and more leading roles ASAP. Hell, the entire cast is phenomenal, and it never once felt like any of them were playing stereotypes.

Definitely check this one out at your earliest convenience.

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