Lulu Wang’s The Farewell opens with disarming honesty. The film, we’re told, is “based on an actual lie”, immediately posing the dilemma permeating every strand of this tender and heartfelt movie. What do you do when you find out something life changing about somebody you love – and that person is blissfully ignorant? Do you keep it to yourself? Do you tell them? And what are the consequences of either course of action?
For Nai Nai’s (Zhao Shuzhen) family, their secret is agonising. The doctors have told them their beloved matriarch has terminal cancer although, as far as the elderly lady is concerned, she’s simply having trouble shaking off the after-effects of a cold. Some antibiotics will sort that out. But should they tell her the truth? Keeping the secret is even more agonising for granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) who has returned to China to both see her and attend a family wedding. She lives in New York, and has absorbed Western attitudes that are the complete opposite of those in her native country. And keeping that secret from her grandmother is horribly hard …..
She’s essentially stuck in cultural no-man’s land. The Chinese tradition is to keep the truth from the person concerned: as a young, Anglicised doctor explains to her, it spares them from that burden of knowledge, with the family showing their love by carrying it on their behalf. Which is why, when the diagnosis is delivered in the film, it’s given to Nai Nai’s closest relative. She just sits outside the room, waiting. The family go to great lengths to conceal the truth, having test results forged and hastily arranging the wedding of Billi’s young cousin and his girlfriend as a reason for the whole family to descend to see Nai Nai. Plus it gives her something to do: a natural born organiser, she’s in her element putting the caterers in their place and bossing around everybody involved.
In a film all about secrets and their ramifications, there’s a certain irony in Billi having something more personal that she’s keeping to herself. While she’s embraced living in the West, her parents have never really come to terms with it, preserving much of their traditional way of life despite living and working in New York. It makes for clashes between daughter and parents, some laden with bitterness and, because she doesn’t fit the traditional mould, Billi feels she’s a constant disappointment. Which is why she conceals her dreams of becoming a writer have suffered a major setback.
Despite all those differences and many carefully concealed cracks in the family, they all come together when they need to and it’s a tribute to Wang’s skill as a director that the cast, who had next to no rehearsal time together, are superbly convincing as a group, all individual characters in their own right. The wedding sequence is deftly choreographed, full of laughter and sadness and containing a mini directing masterstroke when the groom, so often the butt of the family’s jokes, breaks down under the weight of keeping the family secret. It squeezes your heart.
The cinematic equivalent of a spread of dim sum, The Farewell is full of tasty morsels – acting (especially from Awkwafina), direction and cinematography – which come together to form a deliciously satisfying whole. Humour and tears co-exist in a touching and delicate film, one of the treats of this year’s Sundance London.
The Farewell is screened at Sundance London on Saturday, 1 June and Sunday, 2 June.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Drama, Comedy | Cert: tbc | UK release date to be confirmed | Dir. Lulu Wang| Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin and Zhao Shuzhen.