At the opening of The Farewell, we learn that the film is "based on an actual lie." What unfolds from there is a film full of truth about grief, culture, and family. Lulu Wang's film is at once very specific about Chinese culture and yet universal in its depiction of a family in crisis. It is made all the more powerful by the fact that this is Wang's personal story. Her grandmother, of whom she adored, was dying in China and her family decided to not tell her, to instead protect her from living out her final days in fear and sorrow. To cover up the lie, they planned a lavish wedding as an excuse to bring the family together to celebrate her life.
The personal nature of the filmmaking in The Farewell sets it apart. Films of this type can often be emotionally manipulative, cueing the audience when to feel sad and when to cry. Refreshingly, Wang avoids any of this by making a warm film where the humor and sadness bubble up naturally from the characters and situations.
The film contains many strong female performances. At the center is Awkwafina as Billi, Wang's stand-in. She delivers a natural performance here that hopefully results in her getting more lead roles. The grandmother, Nai Nai, is memorably played by Zhao Shuzhen. The two create a wonderful pairing. You get the sense that they have been grandma and granddaughter for years and have a special relationship with each other. This is key to the film as Billi struggles with the cultural tradition of keeping Nai Nai's diagnosis from her.
The exploration of East and West and their cultural differences make The Farewell a rich and rewarding experience. Much like Billi, you will go through several private arguments about this cultural practice. You will likely share Billi's initial outrage, pointing out that this would be illegal in America. It is to Wang's credit as a filmmaker that you may end up changing your mind by the time the credits roll.
The Farewell has an excellent balance of tone throughout. It is an often funny film but not a jokey film. It is a serious and emotional film but never a depressing one. Wang's direction is the film's real star. The Farewell doesn't rely on big stereotypes, running gags and tired clichés. It beats to its own unique drum and as a result, is an affecting and memorable film capped by a great ending.