B+ Dramatic comedy
Written and directed by Lulu Wang
Chinese and Chinese Americans don’t always see eye-to-eye. These generational clashes provide a lot of the laughs in The Farewell. But writer/director Lulu Wang keeps the existential pain of mortality always in the foreground, reminding us that something very serious is happening along with the humor.
Billi (Awkwafina) lives with her parents in New York because she can’t afford her own apartment. She’s horrified when her parents tell her that her beloved grandmother, living in China, is dying of lung cancer. Following Chinese tradition, the patient has not, and will not, be told.
More American than her Chinese-raised parents, Billi finds this charade deeply upsetting. She argues with everyone she can about the deception – including the doctor who made the diagnosis (this Chinese doctor speaks English, which allows Billi to argue with him while grandma hears, but doesn’t understand, the discussion). Meanwhile, family members are flying into China so that everyone can see the old woman one last time before she dies.
How far does the family go to hide grandma’s condition? Very far. They come up with an excuse to explain why everyone is coming into town at the same time, and it’s crazy. One of Billi’s cousins agrees to marry his girlfriend, even though their relationship is demonstrably lukewarm. Their lack of romantic heat provides considerable humor.
The wedding sequence, filled with wild, drunk, and crazy Asians, reminded me of a similar scene in Ang Lee’s breakout film, The Wedding Banquet – also a dramatic comedy. There’s more to the similarity between the two scenes than a lot of rowdy drunks. In both films, the bride and groom don’t love each other, and many of the guests know that the marriage is a sham.
The Farewell is not a broad comedy. Based on an event in Wang’s life, the emotions play true and the film never strays into farce. In one scene, Billi and her mother talk about what’s going on while her father is sleeping off a bender. The contrast between a serious discussion and loud snoring becomes subtly funny.
Most comedies about a family center on romance or eccentricity. Not this one. No one falls in love, and no one acts weird. That passive couple going into a sham marriage reminds us that it’s all too false.
Early on, I figured out how the story would end. I was happily surprised to realize that I was entirely and completely wrong.
The Farewell opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center.