MOVIE REVIEW: Dishonesty the best policy in family dramedy

THE FAREWELL

Three and a half stars

Director: Lulu Wang

Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen

Rating: PG

Running time: 98 minutes

Verdict: This "white lie" catches everyone off guard

 

Beaches, Terms Of Endearment, Love Story … we're all familiar with Hollywood's approach to terminal illness. Tissues are mandatory. As are deathbed reconciliations and some kind of dramatic, emotional closure.

Writer-director Lulu Wang takes a very different tack in this semi-autobiographical dramedy, which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. The Farewell flags its idiosyncratic point of view in the opening credits - by announcing that the film is "based on an actual lie".

Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in The Farewell.
Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in The Farewell.

When a spritely Chinese matriarch (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, her extended family elects not to tell her the bad news - in keeping with cultural traditions.

Apparently, there's an old Chinese saying along the lines that fear is what kills, not cancer, and it's the family's responsibility to carry the burden of the diagnosis for their loved one.

Because they have now migrated halfway around the world, Nai Nai's family concoct a fake wedding between her grandson and his new Japanese girlfriend - so they can say their goodbyes under the cover of the extended festivities.

Having grown up in New York, Billi (Awkwafina) struggles with ethics of that decision, but since she is extremely close to her grandmother, she reluctantly goes along with the elaborate ruse (a pep talk from her uncle helps put the "dishonesty" into a cultural perspective).

The closer the family gets to the big day, the more the strain begins to tell.

Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in The Farewell.
Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in The Farewell.

Over a series of dinners - food plays a key role in The Farewell - old tensions resurface and recriminations fly. Nai Nai observes her youngest son's (Tzi Ma) pallid complexion and asks his wife if he is drinking again. Her oldest son (Jiang Yongbo) manages to hold it together - until the wedding speech.

Lending emotional heft to the film is the central relationship between grandmother and granddaughter, who "get" each other despite their generational and cultural differences.

After a scene-stealing comic performance in Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina reveals her considerable dramatic chops in The Farewell. She is beautifully complemented by 75-year-old Shuzhen - a seasoned pro.

A scene from The Farewell.
A scene from The Farewell.

Wang balances the comedy and the tragedy of the situation with deft assurance, perhaps because she had already workshopped the material so thoroughly in a 2016 episode of This American Life - In Defense Of Ignorance- which detailed the lengths her family went through to obscure the truth from her own grandmother.

Accessible, authentic, and at times side-splittingly funny, The Farewell explores complicated family dynamics and cross-cultural conundrums with a light, sure touch.

 

Opens September 5.