Movie review: ‘The Farewell’
“East is east and west is west,” observed Rudyard Kipling, “and never the twain shall meet.” Anyone doubting the ongoing applicability of that observation should see writer-director Lulu Wang’s moving film “The Farewell” (A24).
The story, based on Wang’s own personal experiences, centers on her stand-in, young Chinese American aspiring writer Billi (rapper Awkwafina). With the rent past due and a letter of rejection from the folks who dole out Guggenheim Fellowships arriving in the mail, Billi’s prospects don’t seem bright. But much worse news is on the way.
Reluctantly, Billi’s parents, affectionate but semi-alcoholic dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and endlessly demanding mom Jian (Diana Lin), tell Billi that her much-loved grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) — known by her Chinese title, Nai Nai — has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They also inform Billi that they, along with the rest of her relatives, intend to keep the dying woman in the dark about her condition.
Though such concealment is customary in China, Billi vehemently disagrees with it, believing it to be both immoral in principle and unfair to Nai Nai. The resulting family tension simmers under the surface as the extended clan gathers in the city of Changchun, ostensibly for the hastily arranged wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), but in reality to have a last visit with their strong-willed yet kindly matriarch.
Wang skillfully lightens her thoughtful drama by combining it with a comedy of manners. One of the characters whose foibles she conveys is Nai Nai’s elderly male apartment mate, who remains oblivious to the conflicts unfolding around him and shows more interest in food than people. Though the nature of Nai Nai’s relationship with him is not made clear, passion seems unlikely to be an ingredient in it.
On the eve of the nuptials, Billi’s family gather at the grave of Nai Nai’s husband and place food and other items on it for his use in the afterlife. While culturally interesting, the scene is not calculated to pose a threat to anyone’s Judeo-Christian faith.
Beyond these aspects of the plot, the potentially objectionable material in Wang’s script consists of a single lapse into vulgar language and some discussion about the hurried pace at which Hao Hao and his fiancee are tying the knot. So this delicate tale, with its deep insights and rich emotions, is probably acceptable for mature adolescents. Mostly in Mandarin. Subtitles.
The film contains non-scriptural religious practices, possible cohabitation, at least one crude term and brief mature references. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
— John Mulderig