The Farewell is a funny, touching film about a Chinese family who gather to celebrate the life of their much-loved grandmother, Nai Nai (a terrific Zhao Shuzhen).
Nai Nai does not know she has been diagnosed with stage four cancer and been given just three months to live.
Her scattered family members are determined that she should not be told.
“In China people have a saying: ‘When they get cancer, they die’. it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear,” says Nai Nai’s son, Haiyan.
So for the first time in 25 years the family has come together – on the pretext of celebrating a wedding, but really to say goodbye to Nai Nai.
Writer/ director Lulu Wang drew on her own life for The Farewell. It notes at the start: “This film is based on an actual lie.”
The central character is Nai Nai’s 30ish granddaughter Billi (a memorable Awkwafina), who has lived in New York since she was six but who has remained close to Nai Nai, talking to her often on the phone.
Billi is conflicted about the whole deception. She has grown up with American ideas of openness, and she thinks it is wrong to keep her grandmother in the dark.
And though she values her independent life as a writer in Brooklyn, she is grieving, not only for Nai Nai, but at the loss of her cultural identity in China.
There are some wonderful scenes of Chinese family life: noisy, outspoken, affectionate, embarrassing.
The wedding, of Billi’s awkward cousin, Hao Hao, and his Japanese fiancee Aiko, is cringe-making and hilarious.
Organised by the indomitable Nai Nai, the wedding is a grand affair with all the trappings, including karaoke performances by bride, groom and guests, and a tearful speech by Billi’s uncle Haibin.
There is a bizarre scene in the cemetery, where Nai Nai and her family have come to pay their respects at her late husband’s grave.
They offer gifts – fruit, flowers, liquor – with everyone bowing in unison – and then dispute whether it is right to bring him cigarettes.
“He quit!” objects Nai Nai. “Ma, let the man smoke – he’s already dead,” says Haibin. “What else can happen?”
The film makes thoughtful contrasts between American individualism (“You guys think one’s life belongs to oneself”) and Chinese culture which ranks individuals behind family, community and country.
Awkwafina’s performance as the melancholy Billi is a highlight. Best known as a bawdy comedian and Youtube rapper, she is a picture of vulnerability.
The Farewell, Lulu Yang’s second film, has been a surprise hit in the States. It was shot in the fast-growing city of Changchun, in north-east China.
The Farewell opens on Thursday, 5 September, at Luna Leederville, Luna On SX and the Windsor, with advance screenings next weekend, and two-for-one specials at 4pm on Saturday, August 31, including jasmine tea and fortune cookies.
Watch the trailer…