Secrets are a lot like psychological versions of Chekhov’s guns. Stories that introduce them are really building up to the moment when they’re inevitably revealed. But writer-director Lulu Wang subverts that dictum with her second feature, The Farewell, a film “based on an actual lie,” which Wang shared in a piece for NPR’s This American Life in 2016.
In The Farewell, rapper and actress Awkwafina plays Billi, a young writer living in New York. She and her parents moved to the states when Billi was six. Now she’s an adult and her paternal grandmother, Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Much to Billi’s horror, no one in her family plans to inform Nai Nai of this fatal development. Her Chinese doctors have followed tradition: they tell Nai Nai’s younger sister the truth, then leave it to her to explain to her sister that her persistent cough and irregular X-rays are the result of “benign shadows” on her lungs. “It’s not the cancer that kills you,” Billi’s mother, Jian (Diana Lin), explains. “It’s the fear.”
And so Billi’s extended family has decided to organize a quickie wedding in China for Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao, who has been dating his apparent fiancée for three months. The wedding will give the entire family an opportunity to say goodbye to Nai Nai without subjecting her to the grief of knowing she is terminally ill. What ensues is a study in coping with grief and familial obligation, and how those obligations strain even those who are committed to upholding them.
The younger generation balks at secret-keeping. When Billi arrives in China for Hao Hao’s wedding, the two of them share a shell-shocked half-presence while the grownups around them try to behave normally. Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma); Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei); and his father, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) cope by drinking heavily. The women busy themselves with domestic industriousness: cooking, cleaning, and monitoring male alcohol consumption.
Wang’s shots (with DP Anna Franquesa Solano) frame the family and the story with static sobriety until deep into the third act’s wedding reception. The family is seated at a round banquet table playing a drinking game. Poor Hao Hao struggles to keep up, and as the room begins to spin for him, so does the camera. Until then, Alex Weston’s bright classical score adds a sense of grandness to an otherwise diminutive, if touching, story.
Mostly, Wang focuses on Billi as she tries to reconcile a show of love that requires lying by omission. Secret-keeping actually functions like a gentlemen’s agreement: the keeper tries not to divulge information, and loved ones perform the requisite obliviousness that allows the lie to live, unchallenged. That’s the dynamic between Billi and her parents: Billi lies to insulate them from her financial and professional disappointments—she’s lost a Guggenheim fellowship and is a month behind on her rent.
Awkwafina subdues the hammy, motormouthed, room-filling affect that’s made for such memorable characters in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8. The slump of her shoulders at pre-wedding gatherings reflects the stress of lying to Nai Nai, but also how long journeys home turn us into children again, and the way the presence of elders makes us shrink into being cared for, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve last seen them. Still, no one shines quite like Zhao Shuzhen, who, as Nai Nai, keeps the film afloat in the second act, bubbling with warmth and grandmotherly playfulness. When Nai Nai is coaching Billi on how to behave at the wedding, she tells her she cannot be nio nio ne ne (bratty); then Zhao shrugs her shoulders and pouts like a petulant teen, full of exaggerated ennui.
It’s not until the very end that Wang allows for a release—one that comes from realizing how much pain Nai Nai has been suppressing to protect her own family from her grief. Her grown children long ago moved to America and Japan, leaving her with a male companion who shuffles wordlessly through the apartment that they share. Zhao quietly devastates with one gesture, a hand over her mouth, as Billi’s taxi to the airport pulls away, when finally no one can see her. It almost doesn’t matter if death is imminent or not. The Farewell leaves you marveling at sincerity, selflessness, and grace, and nursing a need to call your grandmother, no matter how long it’s been.
Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated.