Cancer sucks, especially when you don't even know that you have it.
In Lulu Wang's heartfelt new film, The Farewell, we quickly meet the lovely Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) at the hospital as she talks to her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) on the phone. It is clear the two women have a special connection and talk frequently, which is why the younger woman knows something is wrong without being able to pinpoint the problem. We soon discover that Nai Nai has terminal colon cancer and has just a few months to live. Her caretaker and best friend is hiding the results from her, at the request of Nai Nai's family. What?!
"Based on a true lie," The Farewell covers the period of time where the family plans an impromptu wedding in China in order to derail Nai Nai from finding out about her prognosis. This includes Billi's parents, Haijan (the wonderful Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diane Lin), who don't trust their emotional child to hold it together. Imagine a big family saying one last goodbye to a person who has no idea why they are really here.
Wang's film contains a good mix of comedy and drama, without overdoing either one for melodramatic or slapstick effect. A lesser filmmaker would have gone for pure theatrics or inserted too many old people jokes in order to attract a younger crowd or one not prone to the twists and turns that life can offer without asking. When the family shows up at Nai Nai's house, she is grateful just to see her family, and doesn't think about the real reasons. It sets up many awkwardly sweet moments between her and Billi, Haijan, Jian, and Uncle HaoHao (Han Chen) as every soul desperately clings to the lie that was (somewhat) agreed upon.
One of the most underrated things about comedy is that it can elicit emotion just as fast as drama can. Much of life should be laughed at and examined further for more laughs, thus keeping the complexities and uncertainties away from the aging process. By focusing on the comedy in certain scenes, looking for sweet-natured moments with a family that can be ruthless with each other and devoted at the same time, the heavier moments in The Farewell land harder on the soul. Since you don't see them coming, this film hits you out of nowhere with an emotional punch.
For example, a family member tries to give a speech at the wedding, gets about halfway through, and then crumbles into tears. But it's not a cascading flurry of machine-gun waterworks, but a truly agonizing descent into sadness. We've all been there before, clinging to the optimistic even if the ominous is winning the fight. Another features Nai Nai teaching Billi how to export energy from the body by throwing vicious shadow jabs outside her apartment, which creates a great moment for the actresses to show off their skill sets.
You may know Awkwafina recently from Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, but she excels the most here in her first starring role. Billi is the center of the story, the audience's point of view. We are rolling with her for the entire film, witnessing all the emotional deception going on. It's with her movements that we will decide when it's right or wrong to drop the bombshell of truth ... or withhold it all. Awkwafina shows another facet of her talent, not giving into theatrics or going a complete comedy route with the role. It's an effortlessly humanistic performance full of unexpected warmth.
The real standout here, though, is Zhao. She is tremendous as the resourceful and unstoppable Nai Nai. If I were cancer, I'd want no part of this glorious woman who can be as honest as a knife and comforting as a warm blanket. In some way, she has a feeling something may be wrong, but refuses to even think about it, believing the family when they tell her all the scans show are "benign shadows." She carries the movie and adds the bittersweet yet sharp touch of humor and grace that the movie needs.
Wang keeps the camera close, resisting the urge to be overly showy or distracting with stylistic touches. After all, this is the last supper in some ways, so the actors and story can do most of the work. There's a working-class observational touch to the directing, and it fits the story. She does let it linger on characters at times for dramatic effect, which is a nice touch.
I didn't know what to expect when I walked into The Farewell. Would it go hard to the paint for tears or try to make everything silly? We've seen a lot of movies that have to do with a family rallying around a dying loved one. I'll assure you afterwards that we haven't seen one done quite like this. It's an original and all heart take on the final days with someone you love yet know won't be around forever.
After all, if you can pull genuine laughter from well-written dialogue in a film about cancer, applause is deserved. By mixing eliciting comedy from life's darker turns instead of blunt melodrama, Lulu Wang creates a true emotional response with The Farewell, making you want to call your own family afterwards. You'll give them trouble of course, but also be thankful they're still here.
Take them to see this movie.