In her new sweet-and-sour autobiographical film, “The Farewell,” writer-director Lulu Wang takes us back to her birthplace in Changchun, the “Detroit of China,” for what is billed as a “true lie” family gathering.
First we meet the protagonist of the piece, Billi, a young Chinese American, (rapper and comic, Awkwafina, who’s real name is Nora Lum.)
Billi, we’re told, is a struggling writer in Manhattan (we never see any evidence of her struggle or writing) who has lost a Guggenheim grant, and has just quit her temp job (we never see the job) and is faced with paying the rent on a small apartment owned by a friend’s family.
Now, as she sits on her bed pondering a homeless sparrow, who broke in through a window, Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma) call to tell her that her beloved Nai Nai (grandma) back in China is dying of lung cancer, and has about four months to live. A warm opening.
Bit by bit, we learn Billi’s father brought the family to America to start a new life when Billi was 6 years old. Apparently it worked out well, for her father has made a good living.
But Billi has always been closer to Nai Nai than her parents, and has since childhood, been on the phone with the sweet but controlling matriarch. So off to China goes our Billi.
As we meet the rest of the family back in China, who have come from everywhere, including Haohao, (Han Chen) a nephew in Tokyo who has a brand new Japanese fiancé (Aoi Mizuhara.)
The premise, thinner than rice paper, is that a family decision has been made (without Billi’s consent) to keep the truth from grandma about her cancer, thus embracing a Chinese tradition of taking the burden of truth upon them, therefore sparing the dying member months of fear and despair.
Mother explains, “It’s not the cancer that kills, it’s the fear of it.” Okay.
Billi, despite her basement-level self esteem, is a new-age millennial raised in the Bronx, and is shocked at this “Good Lie,” but is soon overpowered by the more traditionalist family.
Even China’s doctors are in on the subterfuge. Who, after all, is going to argue with thousands of years of Chinese medical thought?
So the “good lie” is put into practice.
In order to explain the sudden appearance of family members she hasn’t seen, or even recognizes, an impromptu wedding is created.
This is where the film happily switches, even for awhile, from downer-ville to gag-a-minute-sitcom land.
Within minutes, cousin Haohao and his stunned Japanese girlfriend are hustled to the altar.
Billi’s dad and his more prosperous brother are persuaded to bankroll the wedding, made even grander and more expensive by Nai Nai’s interference.
The wedding and the after party, which includes bowls and bowls of food, and a Chinese drinking game, are right out of all the wedding movies ever written.
I’ll give the ending away, but only if you send me money.
For this viewer, despite the fine acting, comic touches and Zhao Shuzhen’s wonderful grandma, Lulu Wang’s heartfelt bouquet to her past, fails to bloom.
Thanks to the more professional work of the older Chinese cast, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong and Chen Han, “Farewell,” has more than a few delightful moments.
I’m aware that Wang’s choice of the rapper star Awkwafina for Billi, who moves through the film with one expression, is probably because of the burst of light in her career from her over-the-top role in “Crazy, Rich, Asians.” I don’t think features are in her future, but I’m sure a sitcom hit is in the works for her.
I rush to point out that the majority of critics seem to adore “Farewell” which was a 2019 hit at Sundance, and has a 99% Rotten Tomatoes and a flock of good reviews, so Wang’s future looks bright. There is something in “Farewell,” for everyone, and with six, you get an egg roll.

J.P.  Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: