There’s a scene in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” where some of the characters are playing a Chinese drinking game. I didn’t quite understand the rules, except that it involved singing a song and flapping their elbows like a chicken.
Then I saw that a woman sitting two seats away from me in the theater was excitedly bouncing up and down in her seat and flapping her elbows like a chicken. She knew the game, and seemed delighted to see it represented on screen.
I expect a lot of viewers will have that welcome shock of recognition while watching “The Farewell” (although flapping your elbows is optional). Wang’s film is insightful and empathetic about the immigrant experience — particularly but not exclusively for Chinese immigrants to America — in ways rarely seen in movies.
“The Farewell” is based on Wang’s actual experiences with her family (“Based on an Actual Lie,” as the opening titles tell us). Like Wang, Billi (Awkwafina) moved with her family from China to New York when she was 6, and considers herself largely “Americanized.” Her strongest conduit to China is her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). In one funny scene, they talk on the phone, each of them telling little white lies to the other from half a world away.
Then Billi learns from her parents that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and is not expected to live more than three months. Billi is devastated, then confounded by what she hears next. The family is not going to tell Nai Nai about the diagnosis. “In China, there is a saying,” her mother (Diane Lin) tells her. “It’s not the cancer that kills you. It’s the fear.”
The family’s plan is for Nai Nai’s cousin back in China to marry his girlfriend of only three months, and the wedding banquet will be an excuse for the family to reunite in China to see Nai Nai one last time. BIlli’s parents don’t want her to go because they worry she won’t be able to hide her emotions from Nai Nai, but she puts a round-trip ticket on her credit card and follows along.
What results is a moving film that looks at culture clashes — between Chinese and American traditions, between generations, and between different wings of this large family spread across the globe. Wang presents it all with affection and humor, never judging one perspective as superior to the other. Even the movie’s big lie to Nai Nai becomes, if not justifiable, at least understandable.
Wang often frames scenes so that the characters are in the bottom half of the screen, with lots of empty space above, a visual style that somehow makes them seem smaller, more real. At other moments the characters will stare directly into the camera, creating an intimate connection with the audience, like they see us seeing them.
One of Wang’s biggest casting coups was taking Awkwafina, the rapper/actress known for motormouth performances in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8,” and simply have her stop talking. Billi spends much of the movie listening to and watching her family, the emotions playing on her face. It’s quite powerful to see such a verbal performer be so still, and Awkwafina displays formidable talents as a dramatic actress here.
But it’s Zhao who becomes the real star of “The Farewell.” She plays Nai Nai as a forthright and fearless woman, hilariously saying the things that everyone in the family knows but is too polite to bring up. She’s the sort of grandmother who will, upon seeing you, comment immediately on your weight and your relationship status, but with a sweet smile on her face. As granddaughter and grandmother, Awkwafina and Zhao have enormous chemistry together, and we see where Billi gets her spirit from.
By telling such a specific and personal story, Wang deals with universal themes in “The Farewell.” Whether you came here from another country, or lived here all of your life — if you have a family, you’ll recognize them in this story.