“Based on an actual lie”
That is the opening title card for Lulu Wang’s deeply personal and richly drawn The Farewell, providing us immediately with the levity she imbues throughout her disarmingly charming second movie, which is easily one of the best films of the year.
Billi is an out-of-work writer in New York, a continent and an ocean away from her family in China, when her parents tell her that her grandmother, her ‘Nai Nai,’ has terminal cancer. Played by Awkwafina, it’s not just a career best performance, she’s flat out fantastic. Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) doesn’t mince words: “Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die,” she says bluntly. But, as is also Chinese culture, the family keeps it a secret from Nai Nai herself. They concoct a ruse in the form of a wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) to bring the family together for one final send-off of the family matriarch. It’s a fascinating dichotomy; the direct truth smashed up against an elaborate lie but it’s also a perfect example how expertly Wang balances both of these elements in terms of their dramatic and comedic effects, never veering into sentimentalism nor cheap laughs. Shuzhen Zhou, who plays Nai Nai, gives one of the most delicate and engaging performances of the year. It’s filled with empathy and whip smart humor.
It’s not always easy to create a story that is both acutely and culturally specific while also being thematically universal. Often, adherence to one over the other loses the nuances of both. It’s to Wang’s credit that her highwire act is a triumph. But in perhaps her most clever achievement, by revealing the film’s ruse right at the top, she’s inviting the audience in and we then become a part of lie, a part of the family.
The Farewell is based on “In Defense of Ignorance,” a 2016 episode of This American Life and mined directly from Lulu Wang’s own personal experience. You’ve heard of a sophomore slump. Well, sometimes it’s that sophomore effort that finds an artist matched so perfectly with the material that it makes for pure magic. Wang’s first film, 2014’s Posthumous, told the story of an artist who fakes his own death and sees his art profits skyrocket. It hit a few festivals but never found a proper US theatrical release. It’s currently on Amazon and worth a look.
You may be tempted to look for Crazy Rich Asians similarities and indeed there are some: all-Asian cast, a big wedding and starring Awkwafina. But the similarities, and certainly the style and subject, end there. It’s more “Crazy Middle Income Asians,” if anything. It’s almost entirely in Mandarin and luxurious mansions and ballrooms are replaced with tenement apartments and hotel conference rooms.
But for a small independent and intimate film, Wang spares no expense with the film’s surprisingly deep focus photography, luxurious wide angle shots and perfectly timed slow motion by Anna Franquesa Solano that captures the mood and practically makes itself a character. The gorgeous and rapturous score by Alex Weston is truly a gift.
As we careen towards the (seemingly) inevitable reveal Wang takes what otherwise could have been a gimmicky premise and (possibly) surprise ending and gives it the polish of sophistication and expertise of a master.
A24 will release The Farewell in New York and Los Angeles on July 12th and then wide on July 19th.