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Review: 'The Farewell' subtly explores Chinese and American approaches to death

Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen in the film The Farewell.

Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen in the film The Farewell. Courtesy of A24

The plot of The Farewell is as pithy as an elevator pitch. Chinese matriarch Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and, in keeping with tradition, her family plans to conceal that information so her final days will be happier—over the objections of her Americanized granddaughter Billi (Akwafina).

If that sounds like tearjerking stuff with a potential for high drama, the family’s response to this dilemma—to throw together a show wedding back home in China as an excuse to gather before Nai Nai passes—could be fodder for farce. The strength of writer/director Lulu Wang’s autobiographical tale of culture clash is the tonal balance it strikes. Wang recognizes that families expose our rawest nerves and encourage the most caricatured aspects of our personalities to emerge, but The Farewell ventures into the sentimental without getting mawkish and goes for broad laughs without entering sitcom territory.

The simplicity of that central conflict gives Wang space to pivot in multiple directions. Often what matters is the action in the background, the subtle shifts in relationships between family members. Among her touchstones for The Farewell, cinematographer Anna Solano has cited Hirokazu Kore-eda, the director who (most recently in the brilliant Shoplifters) has skillfully tugged at the hearts of American arthouse viewers with films probing the underside of Japanese culture. And as the camera follows the family through the province of Changchun, it not only reveals the expected cultural clashes, but also the ragged seams holding the new China together, such as the old businessmen who cavort with sex workers in the hotel where the family stays.

These sociological asides don’t always feel necessary. In fact, The Farewell sometimes seems slightly unsure of its scope, of whether it wants to be a more intimate movie or a grander one. But this uncertainty works in its favor, creating a push-and-pull of tone. Its emotional restraint throws you off balance, leaving you to wonder if it will ever arrive at the emotional explosion and big reveal that Hollywood has trained us to expect. (I’m not telling.)

Far from her star-making turn as the catty blond party-girl in Crazy Rich Asians, Akwafina steps out here with a nuanced performance. Her perpetual collegiate slump is the posture your body returns to the minute you step back into your parents’ home, and her sullen look becomes a kind of mask to hide her sorrow as her complex relationship to her Chinese heritage is revealed over the course of the film. And the strength of the cast top to bottom—particularly Zhao, whose Nai Nai is strong without being a cartoonishly feisty elder—gives her breathing room, so she doesn’t have to own every scene she’s in.

Slipping between English and subtitled Chinese, The Farewell is a movie for a global age. But maybe what’s most distinctive about the script is how it treats Billi’s lack of a romantic attachment. Sure there are jokes—Nai Nai asks her pointedly “Do you have a friend yet?” and nudges her toward a cute young English-speaking pulmonologist—but she doesn’t press the issue and neither does the film. Wang doesn’t even throw a serious suitor at her to reject. As lonely and untethered as Billi feels, she doesn’t look for a man as the answer, and the movie doesn’t look at her life as a single woman as a problem to be solved.

The Farewell
Director: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
Rated: PG
Theater: Now playing, Uptown Theatre