One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.
In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.
Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.
I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.