Review: ‘The Farewell’ is a bittersweet family comedy ‘based on an actual lie’

An opening title card insists that it's "Based on an actual lie," but everything that unfolds in The Farewell feels painfully honest, deeply aware, and sweetly true in ways that only the best fiction can achieve. The story, about an intimate conspiracy to hide a loved one's terminal diagnosis from themselves, could easily have seemed forced or unbelievable, but there is not one false note or wasted frame in the picture. Working from her own very personal experience, director Lulu Wang builds a universally relatable story about family, duty, dignity, tradition, love, and all the hassle and heartache that inevitably comes when trying to balance all of those things at once.

Rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina (née Nora Lum) stars as Billi, a young woman born in China but raised in New York and fully assimilated to American thinking, even if bits of her heart are still across the sea. She hasn't been back to China to see her grandmother, or "Nai Nai," (played brilliantly by Shuzhen Zhao) in many years, but they share frequent phone calls, and work hard to feel connected despite the physical distance between them. In fact, Billi feels closer to Granny than to her own demanding parents; she can't, for instance bring herself to tell them that's she been turned down for a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. The folks, however, have been keeping their own big secret: that Nai Nai has advanced lung cancer, and that the family has told her those spots on the X-rays are merely "benign shadows." The belief behind the deception is that the worrying will kill the patient faster than the tumors, and that it is the duty of the family to bear their loved one's emotional burden. The situation is so dire that a cousin's wedding is being hastily arranged as an excuse to gather the whole clan together to say their clandestine goodbyes. Of course, the thoroughly modern Billi struggles with this plan: Is it right to keep the grim truth from Nai Nai, even if hiding it is meant to help her? In the States, the law would prevent such a thing, but as our heroine gradually learns, the rules in China are entirely different.

The gulf between Eastern and Western thinking provides Wang with room for both thoughtful drama and gentle comedy, which never feels forced, stereotypical, or harsh. Despite the bleak premise, the screen pulses with great joy and laughter, as the reunited family devours giant, delicious-looking meals together and drinks just a few too many wedding toasts, as the hilariously petrified groom (Han Chen) begins to realize what he's signed up for. In fact, nearly every scene in this little marvel of a film is infused with a full palette of emotions, subtly and wonderfully conveyed by the terrific cast, composed of newcomers and highly polished veterans like Tzi Ma, whose face you'll instantly recognize from the Rush Hour franchise and dozens of other roles. If the language or much of the setting of The Farewell seems too unfamiliar to some, the feelings it evokes will be extremely familiar — as it's about the soul-deep complexity, the agony, and the happiness that only family can create. When you leave the theater, you'll feel attached to this sweet, maddening family, and hopefully you'll feel a little closer to your own, too.

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