Written and directed by Lulu Wang, based on her own experiences, this intergenerational-bonding comic drama revolves around a Chinese-American artist, Billi (Awkwafina), living in Brooklyn, who returns to her hometown in northeastern China when she learns that her adored Nai-Nai — grandmother in Mandarin — has stage IV lung cancer.
The family decided not to tell Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) that she only has a short time to live, believing that anxiety could kill her before the cancer.
Instead, Nai-Nai’s two sons, their wives and children gather in Changchun, ostensibly for the wedding of Billi’s cousin Haohao (Han Chen) and his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara).
Ambitious and Americanized to her core, Billi believes that suppressing her grief and keeping the severity of Nai-Nai’s illness secret is wrong but — as the family reunion progresses — she begins to appreciate the intrinsic value not only of the deception but also of her Chinese culture/heritage.
Eastern philosophy underscores balance and harmony, minimizing conflict while emphasizing a collective consciousness. Which is why Billi’s family chooses not to reveal Nai-Nai’s medical condition.
Americans emphasize the individual, she’s told, while in China family always comes first. Billi’s uncle tells her: “You think one’s life belongs to one’s self.”
Originally, Lulu Wang’s bittersweet story was on TV’s “This American Life” (2016) and included interviews with family members, both before and after Nai-Nai outlived her original diagnosis.
“People keep asking me, ‘Do you think what they did was right? Do you now support the lie?’ And I don’t have a clear answer,” Wang confesses. “I don’t know what’s right. I do know that the lie has allowed me to spend three months in China with my grandmother and share all these experiences with my family ... but, on an ethical level, I’m still torn.”
FYI: Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Oceans 8”) is the professional name of rapper Nora Lum.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Farewell” is a compassionate, endearing 8. Its cinematic success proves that diversity and inclusiveness is good business.
Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.