In Writer and Director Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”, 31 year-old financially strapped, aspiring writer Billi, played by Awkwafina discovers that her Nai Nai (Grandma in Chinese), played by Shuzhen Zhao, is dying of Stage 4 lung cancer. However, her Family doesn’t tell Nai Nai that she’s sick, that she’s dying.
Her Dad Haiyan, played by compassionate Tzi Ma, and his older brother Haibin, played by gentle Yongbo Jiang, construct their narrative: The family would return to Changchun, China for the wedding of Haibin’s son Hao Hao, played by Han Chen, and his Japanese bride Aiko, Aoi Mizuhara. They will all say their “Goodbye” to Nai Nai, then. 25 years ago, Haiyan’s family immigrated to New York. While Haibin’s family immigrated to Japan.
In Chinese tradition, a person is part of the whole, of family. Consequently, Chinese culture deems it far kinder not to tell family members that they are gravely ill, that they are going to die. So that they may live out the rest of their lives in peace. At least that’s the noble intention.
Yet for Billi, controlling the narrative occurs far more than unkind: It’s just wrong. During Nai Nai’s emergency medical visit, Billi outs the narrative speaking in English to Dr. Song, played by charming Jim Liu, “It’s a lie.” He replies, “It’s a good lie.” Not understanding English, Nai Nai then inquires if young handsome Dr. Song is single. Because, her favorite granddaughter Billi is still unmarried. Yeah.
That’s the ironic beauty and poignancy of Writer- Director Lulu’s “The Farewell”. It’s based on the lie she lived in her own life. So watching “The Farewell” is like watching life unfold. Will the “good lie” set you free?
Awkwafina is the revelation. Her Billi loves her Nai Nai, so. She remembers fondly catching dragonflies with her as a child. Back in New York, she calls Nai Nai daily, just to talk. Billi is the former piano prodigy, now aspiring writer applying for the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Billi acutely discerns people. Awkwafina possesses the wondrous gift of letting us know what’s going on inside in her glance, in her silence. She’s amazing.
Shuzhen as Nai Nai is total authenticity. She’s a genuine character whether she’s commenting about Hao Hao and Aiko’s possible lack of sex life or teaching Billi morning Tai Chi, “Ha. Ha.” She’s so full of life and joy.
Awkwafina and Shuzhen’s screen partnership in “The Farewell” is truly something special to behold. Billi’s own family apparently has suffered in their trials and tribulations. Haiyan is a good man, a recovering alcoholic. Her Mom Jian, played by subtly strong Diana Lim, seemingly had to prove herself to Nai Nai. Jian warns her Billi that she must participate in the “lie” on their visit to Changchun. This is tough for Billi, who wears her emotion on her sleeve, especially when it comes to Nai Nai.
Paradoxically, Lulu freely invents her narrative about unconditional love, about family. As Awkwafina both laughs and cries, I got it: Nai Nai was really the only one who truly gets her Billi, who she is. Billi could be her authentic self with her. Nai Nai always loved Billi, always had her back. In the touching confession, Nai Nai tells Billi, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it…” She’s so proud of her granddaughter. She always sees the greater than within her.
I was in tears in the final scenes of “The Farewell”, but not for what you might surmise. Life is in the surprise, the unexpected. Yes, cultures may occur as different or foreign, yet humanity is essentially the same. Lulu Wang, Awkwafina, and Shuzhen tell their very personal story of family, of love that touched my heart. “The Farewell” is my favorite movie of the year.