It’s tempting to think, in platitudes, that family is the same the world over; that we all have our blood ties, at the end of the day, and these connections will out.
That’s not really true though, or is simplistic, more kindly. Different cultures have radically different attitudes and expectations when it comes to family and familial responsibilities. Lulu Wang’s superb, delicate film is testament to the value in open-mindedness toward these differences.
It stars the marvellous Awkwafina as Billi, living a subsistence millennial life in New York, occasionally visiting her parents, played by the simmering Diana Lin and befuddled Tzi Ma. They are immigrants to America, having arrived when Billi was young, leaving behind an extended family that they contact mainly by telephone.
Chief among these for Billi is her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), a benevolent presence down the line. But, unbeknownst to Billi, Nai Nai is seriously ill.
When that news comes out, Billi ignores the concern of her parents to join them on a trip back to China to effectively say goodbye to Nai Nai. The cover story is a cousin’s rushed wedding, and the key to it all is that Nai Nai doesn’t actually know she’s ill, and will not be told, as is a quasi-family tradition.
This sets up a delicately-wrought dance between the various members of the extended family, as they each struggle with their own version of grief ahead of Nai Nai’s impending departure. But, moreover, they bounce off each other’s contrasting coping mechanisms and attempts to dupe the kindly old woman.
Awkwafina’s performance as Billi confirms her as a genuine chameleon, as tender here as she was riotous in Crazy Rich Asians, her understated black humour a real tonic throughout. But each member of the main cast has at least one moment of revelatory clarity.
From Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen), sacrificing his wedding to play to the required tune and barely keeping it together at a family dinner, to her Uncle’s (Yongbo Jian) laughable attempt at a loving speech, the devastation of loss felt in advance is slowly seeded by Lulu Wang.
Through slow-paced, leisurely scenes, we see these characters interact, and grow together after years apart. Wang shows us different sides to family, their annoyance at different choices, the competition for loyalty, and the unvanquished love that carries it all along. We see Billi’s bewilderment at returning to a world and a way of being that she barely remembers, and her confusion as to whether it’s where she actually belongs.
But through it all Wang also manages to superbly drop in notes of commentary on the state of modern China’s society, and how it’s stretching its familial traditions with growth and modernisation. We see placid shots of echoing patterns of high-rises, hear of the destruction of old neighbourhoods, and observe how the younger generation are all leaving the country, or have left it.
This is simply excellent filmmaking – the narrative presented is of the highest order, subtle and exquisite, but also has depths and nuances flowing readily beneath the surface. The Farewell is not to be missed, and is to be savoured in the watching.