‘The Farewell’ offers a loving glimpse into Chinese culture

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

How does a family living across two cultures reconcile differences? “The Farewell,” based on a true story, shows one way to navigate such a split.  

Shuzhen Zhao (left) portrays Nai Nai and Awkwafina plays her granddaughter, Billi, in “The Farewell.” The film is billed as a comedy, but it has a serious side.

American audiences rarely have an opportunity to see contemporary films directed by and featuring people of Asian heritage. The successful 2018 movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” which followed a typical romantic-comedy format, was a notable exception. Watching it made many moviegoers wish for a film with deeper, more fully realized Asian characters and a less formulaic plot. 

“The Farewell,” which garnered critical praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is very nearly that movie. It deals with a less glamorized and more kitchen-sink view of family life than “Crazy Rich Asians,” and it also provides an affectionate and accessible glimpse into Chinese culture and values. 

Although it’s marketed as a comedy, “The Farewell” has much to say about the tensions between the individual and the family and between those who leave their country and those who stay behind. Because Lulu Wang is a relatively young filmmaker (she’s in her 30s), it’s intriguing to imagine how she might refine her storytelling in subsequent projects. But more on that later.

Wang based “The Farewell” on her own family story. In 2013, her grandmother (nai nai in Mandarin) in Changchun, China, was diagnosed with a fatal illness, which the family decided to hide from her. To Western audiences, this situation seems unbelievable. But, as we learn in the film, Chinese families routinely withhold this kind of information, believing that it would break the spirit of their loved ones. 

Wang, who moved with her parents from Changchun to Miami when she was 6 years old, was brokenhearted by the news about her grandmother, with whom she had remained close. The film became a vehicle for saying goodbye, as Wang has said, while also offering an opportunity to explore the family’s perspective.

Wang’s stand-in in the movie is Billi, the granddaughter, who arrives in Changchun along with the extended clan, preparing to say farewell to their adored matriarch. To conceal the real purpose of their visit, they stage an elaborate wedding. We see Billi pushing back at what she sees as her family’s misguided decision to lie to Nai Nai. In the United States, Billi argues, it would be unconscionable to keep a diagnosis from someone; it might even be illegal, she says to her dad. But in China, a relative tells her, it’s the family’s job to carry such a burden. Billi isn’t satisfied with that answer. What if she wants to say goodbye? she asks.

Billi’s worry and grief are compounded by feelings of guilt. She hasn’t visited Nai Nai in the last several years, and her relatives suggest that she’s hurt her grandmother by her absence. They consider Billi to be American, not Chinese. Her Mandarin skills are negligible.  

The movie may sound ponderous, and while it deals in serious subjects, it also has a funnier, airy side. Billi’s relatives are a lovable, wacky bunch, led by her delightful granny, whose spunk and joie de vivre lighten the film. (Audience members were audibly delighted with Nai Nai’s scenes.) 

Billi is portrayed by American actress and rapper Awkwafina, whose comic turn in “Crazy Rich Asians” stole that movie. She’s toned down her persona to play this role, and although she’s believable and engaging, she spends much of the movie looking sadly out at the passing scenery. You do sense, however, that there is more going on behind those sad eyes. 

The real star is Shuzhen Zhao, who plays the grandmother. Her Nai Nai is a blend of indomitability, charm, shrewdness, and puckish delight. Not to mention she’s got game when it comes to tai chi moves. So nuanced is her performance that it’s not until the end of the movie that you see her give way to her own emotions as Billi departs, leaving her standing in the street. 

This penultimate scene is undeniably affecting. However, with Wang’s decision to hew so closely to real life, she may have missed an opportunity to tell an even more dramatic and satisfying tale. Billi doesn’t really grow over the course of the film; her character lacks a final emotional payoff. 

Wang has said she deliberately resisted turning “The Farewell” into a conventional drama. As she told Slate, “[M]anipulating the story for the sake of plot points and drama would take away from what the story is actually about. It isn’t about some big reveal but about the Western desire to have answers ... and how do you deal when you can’t get them. [At the time,] I wanted that catharsis – this moment where some big, dramatic thing happens. And what you realize is, actually, it’s not that dramatic at all.”

Instead, she says, “The drama is interior.”

In Mandarin and English with English subtitles.

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