“Tell me what’s going on,” says Billi (Awkwafina) to her parents. “Your grandmother, Nai Nai, is dying,” says Jian (Diana Lin), Billi’s mother. “She doesn’t know, and the family thinks it’s better she doesn’t know,” father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) explains. “I need to see her,” Billi says. “But if you go to China,” says mother, “she’ll find out right away because you can’t hide your emotions.” That’s the setup for this touching story of Nai Nai’s extended family members — how they gather in Changchun, China, to say goodbye without revealing the truth.
Can Billi keep her beloved grandmother’s terminal diagnosis a secret? Does Nai Nai suspect she hasn’t long to live? Will this bittersweet and tender film be on your 2019 “10 Best” list? It’s on mine.
Awkwafina (“Ocean’s Eight,” “Crazy Rich Asians”) is at the soulful center of “The Farewell.” She’s 30-something, aspiring writer Billi, whose close, loving relationship with paternal grandmother, Nai Nai, is the film’s emotional heart. In New York, on her cell phone, Billi says to Nai Nai, “You’re alone. I worry about you.” Nai Nai, from China, says the same thing. As Nai Nai, Shuzhen Zhou is instantly charming and likable; no wonder Billi loves her. Diana Lin and Tzi Ma are Billi’s mother and father, Jian and Haiyan, who emigrated from China when Billi was 6. Mother Jian is, unlike her daughter, reserved: “I don’t like to put my emotions on display,” she says. Father Haiyan is easy-going and, sometimes, drinks too much. “It’s our duty,” he says, “to carry Nai Nai’s emotional burden for her.”
Others in the cast include Haibin, Billi’s uncle, played by Yongbo Jiang, whose son, Hao Hao (Han Chen) pretends to be engaged to Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Their wedding, Nai Nai is told, has brought the family together for the first time in 25 years, and the sham wedding is a source of much of the film’s good-natured humor. Hong Lu is Nai Nai’s devoted younger sister, “Little Nai Nai.” She, too, is part of what the family calls “the good lie.”
Written and directed by Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” is autobiographical, based on, as Wang says, “an actual lie.” (We see her actual grandmother in the end credits.) As critic James Beradinelli notes, it’s odd when a film about illness and dying is called “a feel-good experience,” but it’s true. “The Farewell” will leave you grateful for loving families and, maybe, smiling.
Rated PG for thematic material, language and smoking, “The Farewell” runs 98 minutes. Much of the dialog is Mandarin, with English subtitles. See it if you can. It’s a good one.
Touching story, “The Farewell,”
Grandma doesn’t know she’ll die;
Her saddened family will not tell –
It’s what they call “the good lie.”