In writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, we’re invited to spend time with a Chinese family as it gathers to celebrate a wedding. That’s the pretext anyway; the truth is far more devastating. Fresh off a cancer diagnosis, the family’s grandmother is given just a few months to live. Enter Billi (the film’s star, Awkwafina), travelling from New York to see her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) one last time, and the rest of the family’s relatives—the grandmother’s sister, her children, and more. The whole experience should be grim, except the film’s opening text resets expectations: “Based on an actual lie.“
As per Wang’s own history, the family decides not to tell their elderly matriarch of her own impending death. It’s a curious decision, but one borne on the wings of tradition. What follows in The Farewell is a minor reunion of sorts, one shaded by the context of the gathering, but no less joyful or poignant because of it. With a gentle touch and real sense of the emotions involved, Wang guides us through the familial dynamics in play. Like Billi, her parents, Haiyan (the familiar Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), are also returning to China after many years in America. All three performances speak to their dislocation, both the pleasure of returning home and the pain that comes in acknowledging the passage of time. Some of this will feel familiar to viewers—and the film does indeed get a touch repetitive—yet it presents an opportunity for empathy, a chance to gain some insight into one specific story. It’s impossible not to relate to some part of this universal tale.
If there’s a disappointment to be found, it’s in wanting more—more drama, more conflict, more background. Not every family story needs to be filled with screaming histrionics, and in truth, I appreciated The Farewell‘s calm mood. But the film also feels like it needs more depth, more reasons to invest in what we’re watching. As with its recurring visual motif of birds, the whole film does indeed take flight; and then, just as quickly, it soars out of sight and mind.