“The Farewell,” Lulu Wang’s debut feature, conjures a premise so rich with potential comedy, heartbreak and family weirdness that it can only have come from real life. Which it did, via an episode of “This American Life” that first aired in 2016. The film version, which announces itself as “based on an actual lie,” has a loose, anecdotal structure and a tone that balances candor and tact. Much of the charm and power of this story — about events leading up to a sham wedding that’s also a fake funeral of sorts — come from the palpable sense that it genuinely happened to someone.
[Read about Lulu Wang’s real-life story of love and deception.]
The fictionalized version of that someone (in other words of Wang herself) is Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling, artistically minded New Yorker who emigrated from China with her parents as a young child. In some ways, Billi is closer to her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in the northern Chinese city of Changchun and speaks no English, than to her own mother (Diana Lin) or father (Tzi Ma).
Nai Nai (Mandarin for “grandma”), always available for warm, easygoing cellphone chats, is a funny, candid, lively presence compared to Billi’s parents, who often seem weary, anxious and impatient. They have worked hard and sacrificed so much to give their daughter access to the American middle class, as they don’t hesitate to remind her. It’s a complicated inheritance, to understate the matter. At times, the competing demands of filial duty, individual ambition and cultural identity that Billi faces seem overwhelming.
Not that “The Farewell” is all about her. Billi’s identity crisis comes into view as the side effect of a larger and graver situation. Nai Nai, who has a persistent cough, receives a grim diagnosis. Or, rather, her younger sister (Lu Hong), who accompanies Nai Nai to her medical appointment, hears the bad news and decides to tell everyone in the family except Nai Nai, who may have only a few months to live. A party is planned, at which Billi’s cousin, who grew up mostly in Japan, will pretend to marry his girlfriend. The real purpose is to gather the clan to pay respects to the dying matriarch, though no one is supposed to shed a tear or mention her illness.
Billi is bothered by the secrecy, both because it seems unethical to withhold information from a patient and because it means that she must counterfeit her own feelings, suppressing her grief in favor of forced joy. Wang turns her frustration and bewilderment into a gentle exploration of the cultural differences and generational schisms that have, over the years, opened up within Nai Nai’s extended family.
Some relatives offer simple ways of explaining these divides. In America, Billi is told, the emphasis is on the individual, whereas in China family and community always come first. It’s probably not the first time she has heard something like that, and “The Farewell,” like Billi, treats such conventional wisdom with respectful skepticism. Families, communities and individuals aren’t easily summed up in a few catchphrases, and life is rarely a matter of choosing sides.
But there is also something hesitant about the way Wang turns this beguiling family story into a film, an unwillingness to push too hard into potentially painful emotional territory, which also keeps the comedy in check. A tearful confrontation between Billi and her mother, rather than bringing hard issues into the open, buries them in overscripted speeches. Aside from the irrepressible Nai Nai, who gets all of the good lines and most of the best camera angles, the other family members are thinly drawn.
That includes Billi herself, whose life outside the family is barely sketched in and whose inner life rarely emerges into view. Awkwafina, a charismatic music-video star and a strong comic presence in “Crazy Rich Asians,” vanishes into Billi’s moods rather than illuminating them. Her performance seems cautious and defended in a way that characterizes “The Farewell” as a whole. Its affection for its characters feels protective; the film is reluctant to spill any secrets or cause any embarrassment.
There is admirable kindness and impressive loyalty in this approach, but it also puts a bit of a damper on the party. Wang appeals to the audience’s tact and good will, counting on our acceptance that some things are none of our business. A version of the impulse that keeps Nai Nai in the dark about her condition hovers over the party, keeping the guests at a distance and the festivities carefully under control.
Rated PG. A few hard feelings. In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.