'The Farewell' proves a moving, cross-cultural experience

The tagline says it all: “Based on an actual lie.” That’s the truth (and the basis) of a delightful multigenerational family reunion, “The Farewell.”

The family in question is Chinese — very Chinese — summoned from several continents to return to their Changchun homestead for a hastily arranged wedding. But that’s just the pretext.

The real, and secret, agenda is their matriarch’s swan song: Beloved grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a short while to live. But her family has decided to withhold that information from her, using the wedding as an excuse to gather everyone for a final farewell visit.

Back in New York City, Nai Nai’s headstrong young granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) fiercely disapproves of keeping grandma in the dark about her own illness. For that matter, Billi fiercely disapproves of just about everything involving her parents’ traditional values. Her folks forbid her to go to China with them for the reunion, because she can’t or won’t hide her emotions.

'The Farewell'



  • Starring:Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhou.
  • Rating: PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.

She goes anyway — showing up in the middle of a tense dinner scene, where rivalrous relatives are debating the relative merits of China vs. America and Japan. Nobody expected, or particularly wanted, her there, except feisty Nai Nai, who’s thrilled to see her favorite grandchild — for whom “stupid child!” is her chosen term of endearment.

They have long since bonded. Wrenched away from China to the U.S. at age 3, Billi is back for an equally wrenching, ongoing debate: to tell Nai Nai she’s dying, or not?

Director-writer Lulu Wang crafts this warm tale of the Chinese diaspora with admirable skill. We truly get to know the whole family — charming characters, all — with all the quirks and nuances of their relationships: the stress between Nai Nai’s two very different sons, one from America, the other from Japan, together for the first time in 25 years. The even greater stress between Billi and her mother makes for a battle neither of them can ever really win.

As Billi, the displaced American millennial complete with nose ring, Awkwafina — star of last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians” hit — is excellent, matched mightily by Shuzhen Zhou as her soulful, youthful granny. Billi’s gentle father (Tzi Ma) and uptight mom (Diana Lin) are likewise empathetic. But it’s the hilarious young bride and groom (Aoi Mizuhara and Han Chen) — clueless and miserable in each other’s company — who steal the show.

“Say it’s a year they’ve been dating,” instead of three months, whispers Nai Nai, so people won’t talk.

Ms. Wang has coaxed fine, naturalistic performances all around — from an obsequious bellboy to an old auntie who makes her dog sing. Her cinematography in Changchun (a huge industrial city of 4 million, capital of China’s Jilin province and former capital of the WWII Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo) provides fascinating glimpses of contemporary middle-class urban Chinese life.

You’ll especially enjoy the climactic marriage banquet. Its eating and drinking competitions, stilted speeches and sobbing groom gain it a place in the pantheon of great movie weddings, punctuated as it is by funky-sentimental American music (Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”).

But my favorite scene is one in which the family treks en masse to pay respects at grandpa’s cemetery gravesite — bringing him all the food (and cigarettes) he could possibly want in the afterlife.

Turns out, the story is based on that of Ms. Wang’s own grandma.

“I told her it was just a sort of immigration story about this family who left and are coming back for a reunion because of a wedding,” the director recently told Terry Gross of “Fresh Air.” It was “only a lie by omission.” She and her family assumed that lying about the movie’s plot wouldn’t pose a problem because the grandmother would die before it came out.

Yes, well… In any case, the jam-packed preview audience laughed heartily, undisturbed by the subtitles. “Farewell” tugs at the heartstrings in many funny, bittersweet, touching ways. To tell or not tell? “Good” lies vs. hard truth? The difference between East and West, says Billi’s uncle, is that in the West, “You think your life belongs to yourself.” In the East, it belongs to your family and society.

For better or worse.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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