Nai Nai is dying.
There’s no telling how long she has left, but it’s not much. Collectively the family decides that it’s best no one tell her, and an upcoming wedding becomes the perfect excuse to gather together for one last goodbye. But Billi (Awkwafina) is not like her family, which is why her parents don’t want her along for the gathering. Wearing her emotions on her sleeve, she is an open book for Nai Nai. Naturally, Billi arrives anyway only to find her entire extended family falling in line with the elaborate hoax.
THE FAREWELL is, according to the opening titles, based on an actual lie. Experienced by director Lulu Wang a decade ago, her silent crisis is the basis for one the year’s best films.
Told through subtle exchanges and graceful body language, THE FAREWELL is a balancing act of two worlds and cultures. Billi, having grown up in America, is open and talkative to the point of driving people around her insane. Her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) are more subdued and withdrawn. Their performances beautifully communicate the highs and lows of a decades long marriage fraught with strife. There’s also an incredible grace in how naturalistic everyone is; family dinners feel like documentary footage as opposed to scripted scenes. It helps that Wang has cast the real Nai Nai’s sister (Hong Lu) as herself. A natural and magnetic presence on screen, Lu does much of the heavy lifting in the supporting role she’s played all her life.
Carrying the film is the stupendous Awkwafina. Coming from scene-stealing supporting roles in films like OCEAN’S 8, she delivers an early career best as Billi. It’s a difficult part too, as Billi is not an active character. Everything about her is reactive to the point that by the time anything registers, it’s already too late. Splitting herself between two of the largest cities in the world, Billi still feels like an outsider without a home. Returning to Nai Nai one last time offers her a chance to seek a connection she believes necessary. Awkwafina beautifully communicates the longing that anyone who has moved away from their families has felt.
Luckily the film is not all sorrow and melancholy; it is also very funny at times. Wang mines humor from both tradition as well as family quirks which have a basis in her own life. There’s a hysterically funny scene set entirely in the background, as a hapless couple pose for increasingly elaborate wedding pictures. Wang places the act entirely out of focus, making everything that much funnier when nobody pays attention to it. At the heart of the comedy is Nai Nai herself (Zhao Shuzhen). A witty and no-nonsense matriarch filled to the brim with dry humor, her chemistry with Awkwafina is incredibly touching. There isn’t a single moment that comes off as false between the two.
There are also wonderful moments of introspection where Wang allows the film to slow down to consider the passage of time not just between people, but cultures as well. Billi’s devastation in finding out her old playground, still vividly alive in her mind, gone to make way for a shopping mall is all too familiar. A peek through an open door at a hotel reveals quiet desperation as businessmen silently play mahjong with courtesans hoping to make a familial connection.
Directed with incredible confidence and grace, it’s hard to believe that this is only the second film from Lulu Wang. Shot with an eye for sumptuous detail and immaculate pacing, there isn’t a wasted moment in the entire film. Instead it feels like visiting people you’ve known your whole life and never want to let go. By the time the end comes, you wish there was more time.
It’s the rare kind of film that breaks your heart into a million pieces, only to rebuild it again moments later even stronger.