Ensemble family drama The Farewell is 'an intensely moving love letter to the ties that bind'

A Chinese-American family gathers to celebrate a beloved grandmother in the comedy drama The Farewell

The Farewell is a poignant comedy drama about a family reunion in the shadow of terminal illness
Damon Smith

THE art of self-deception is convincing yourself that everything is going to be just peachy when, patently, it's not.

Few of us truly master the tentative tightrope walk between denial and self-protection, and that certainly applies to the beautifully sketched characters in Lulu Wang's poignant comedy drama about a family reunion in the shadow of terminal illness.

Drawn from the writer-director's personal experience – an opening title card pithily declares the film is "based on an actual lie" – The Farewell sensitively navigates a swell of conflicting emotions.

Wang treads carefully, eschewing brazen tear-jerking with a deeply satisfying amalgamation of wry humour and raw, heartfelt disclosure to loosen the knots of tension between different generations of her on-screen clan.

Tugs of war between east and west, tradition and modernity provide plentiful food for thought as comic whirlwind Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) delivers a terrific dramatic performance as a doting granddaughter, who struggles to conceal her feelings as she returns to China after more than 20 years.

"It's... different," she tells an inquisitive hotel receptionist, who imagines America as a distant promised land.

The same could be said of Wang's film, which repeatedly refuses to take an easy or conventional path to tear-stained catharsis.

Chinese American aspiring writer Billi Wang (Awkwafina) lives in New York and is two months in arrears on the rent as she pursues a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship to further her literary ambitions.

During a regular visit to her father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin) in Manhattan for dinner, Billi learns that beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) in China has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

In keeping with tradition, the family has withheld the results from Nai Nai.

She is blissfully unaware that she has three months to live, perhaps less.

The Wang clan intends to gather in Changchun under the false pretence of the hastily arranged wedding of Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who have been dating for three months.

"You can't go. You can't hide your emotions," Jian tells her distraught daughter.

Billi flatly disobeys and arrives unannounced at Nai Nai's apartment in the midst of feverish preparations for the sham nuptials.

Assured by a local doctor that ignorance is bliss – "It's a good lie" – Billi wrestles with her conscience as the elderly matriarch's condition worsens.

The Farewell is an intensely moving love letter to the ties that bind, distinguished by terrific performances from the ensemble cast including twinkly-eyed scene-stealer Shuzhen.

Wang's script is elegantly crafted to flesh out a vast array of family members and her sparing use of broad comedy (an accident-prone sitting for wedding photos is a treat) keeps her film the right side of mawkish and manipulative.

The copious tears that fall are honestly earned.

Rating: 8/10

THE FAREWELL (PG, 100 mins) Comedy/Drama. Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara. Director: Lulu Wang.

Released: September 20

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