Everyone must know Lulu Wang is the happiest woman in the world. A Chinese-American writer director, a product of Sundance Institute’s FilmTwo Initiative, a This American Life writer and narrator: Wang knows a good story. In fact, she knows her own, knows its worth, knows what catastrophic fate befalls her narrative if not careful, if left to compromise. She often said “no.” But those conversations by studio heads to change course, to Americanize her story, evaporated with the quickness of a dawn-lit drizzle. Wang is victorious. And never again will she question her resolve.
The Farewell: teeming with emotion—observes impending grief, regret, and affection bubble to the surface and bob like boiling mushrooms in a hot pot. With each nibble at the film’s simmering secret at the center of this dinner table, our noses sniffle and eyes well with the spiciness of a Sichuan base. Wang knows the meal she’s serving: the kind that melts hearts and warms the soul. She is the archetypal chef meeting with her guests, attentive to their enjoyment of her food: the cuts she’s painstakingly executed for depth, the pairing of characters for enjoyment, the individual profiles meticulously thrown together for harsh yet sweet conversation. Wang is undeterred by honest creation. Few directors with hopes of telling their stories: filled with the stoicism, subtly, and hilarity that courses through The Farewell, possess the same fortitude to fulfill their will.
Lulu Wang is a triumph of the will. Narrating the success of “an actual lie,” the Posthumous filmmaker recounted her family’s deception on NPR’s This American Life. Six years ago, doctors diagnosed Wang’s grandmother with cancer. Six years ago, Wang’s family followed Chinese tradition and resolved to lie to her grandmother, to withhold her prognosis, to conceal the short time she had to live. Asked by producers to film her story completely in English, Wang resisted by writing and rewriting the screenplay for an all-Chinese cast, save for one actress, in Mandarin. The decision serves as one of the components that makes the film.
The Farewell follows Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling artist with an especially close relationship with her grandmother or Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). After Nai Nai’s cancer diagnosis, the family creates a subterfuge to visit her one last time by holding a sham wedding for her grandson and Billi’s cousin HaoHao (Han Chen) with his Japanese girlfriend of only three months Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). The wedding brings together three families, three cultures: Chinese, Japanese, and American. Meanwhile traumatic memories and philosophies spill out like broth from a punctured dim sum, as the families perform their acts of deception to varying degrees of success.
Initially, Billi isn’t invited into the masquerade. She’s too emotional, her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) believe. Nevertheless, Billi travels to China, specially Changchun, anyways. And over the course of the film, she expresses the myriad of ways she loves Nai Nai and her disapproval of the family’s innocent lie.
The role, in stunning fashion, sees Awkwafina give a breakout dramatic performance. Known prior for her comedic roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8, a hunched posture and her mischievous smile conceals the turmoil at her character’s center. She’s the secret behind a clown’s makeup. Not fully fluent in Chinese, Awkwafina actualizes the mistranslations of Billi’s emotions and background, and dramatizes the plight of a first-generation immigrant. Billi on several occasions mourns a lost foreign culture, her own. She observes the changes occurring in China, the new skyscraping hotels and high rises, and the potential memories never fulfilled with Nai Nai and her now deceased grandfather. Such misplaced opportunities, in time, spring to the surface; Billi crying to her mother, lamenting the family and country she’s never known, as they search for Aoki’s missing earring. The tenor of Wang’s scenes explode on the power of tiny objects, like the small sparks of fireworks among the vast night sky.
Her family in several tangential ways, experience duplicate mistranslations. They’re like ciphers with the keyword missing, most notably when describing the differences between Western and Eastern cultures— not just in vague cliches, but by Billi’s mom explaining to the family what makes America special: charity, while her uncle describes the absence of communal sacrifice in the West. In America, the burden lies upon the self for cathartic release. In the East, the family must weather the crucible of emotional suppression for the good of another. Wang parses these broad cultural observations within stratas of Billi’s family unit: Billi the emotional daughter, her father caught between guilt and familial loyalty, and her stoic mother. Even, Aiko, HaoHao’s fiance, who only speaks Japanese, is confined to awkward and intriguingly nervous smiles: a mark of Aoi Mizuhara’s subtle comedic chops, while the families’ rueful storm rages around her.
The only characters left undeterred are Nai Nai and her younger sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong): Wang’s real-life grandaunt—one planning the wedding while the other continues the subterfuge and dreams of her future, respectively. And when the big wedding arrives, Wang provides hints of comedy and mourning. In my experience, watching the film three times — including its premiere at Sundance, depending upon the audience, each scene and line in Wang’s sharp script invites full-throated laughter or poignant silence. Wang offers a rorschach test of bereavement, especially during the wedding game, when the camera whip pans to each family member flapping their arms like a chicken, even as drips of Alex Weston’s gripping string and choir score unhurriedly pulls across the screen.
A story without villains, thankfully, The Farewell stands to make a serious showing at the box office. The rise of a uniquely Asian-American cinema, demands such success. And such triumphs borne with the authenticity Wang provides obviously opens a wider door for richer stories to rush through. The Farewell invites, delivers, cultural appreciation.
And though the state of filmmaking rewards filmmakers for refusing to kill their darlings, for dying on the wrong creative hills, Wang offers a refreshing example of a director picking the “right” battles. So much of the fevered race for bloated run times stems from an overindulgent auteur syndrome. But Wang discovered the essential components of her film: namely the language and the film’s ending, a tracking shot trailing away from Nai Nai that’s forced me to bitter and reminiscent tears each time. The happiest woman in the world, Wang does not succumb to outside pressure. She is free, and once more, in her disciplined recounting of her story, she is freer than anyone on earth.
Note: opening line to this piece was inspired by Stanley Kauffmann’s 1994 Pulp Fiction review.
Credit to Yingduo Liu for research purposes.