The opening line on the screen is “Based on a lie.” That may be the cleverest writing in “The Farewell,” which has a good idea at its core. But, as many a screenwriter has discovered, it’s what you do with the good idea that counts.
Billi is a mid-20s Asian American (Awkwafina) who at age 6 left China with her parents, working as a struggling writer in New York City. Despite her remove from Beijing, she’s close to her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) who still lives there. Billi is devastated when she learns Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer and only a few months to live. The American and Chinese sides of the family decide to travel to China to see Nai Nai one last time, BUT—and here’s the “good idea”—Nai Nai is not to be told she’s dying. To keep the secret, a fake marriage, complete with a lavish wedding banquet, serves as a cover for the onslaught of family members from overseas. Most of the family understands that the “lie” is the Chinese way, but Americanized Billi believes Nai Nai should know the truth of her condition.
Where does a scriptwriter go from here? There’s tension to exploit between the keep-the-bad-news-from-her family members (too many to keep track of), and Billi. It’s an advice-prone family, and Billi gets plenty of it. Will she blurt out the truth? Let’s hope not! Nai Nai, too, is adept at the advice game, and Billi gets lots of instruction about career and marriage—and Chinese shouting and exercise–from grandma, whose utter lack of knowledge of New York City and Billi’s life there doesn’t deter her. Of course, Billi loves Nai Nai and the two spend time together, which is about as cloying and boring on screen as it would be in real life. When Nai Nai, convinced that she’s fit as a fiddle, decides to obtain the results of a new chest X-ray, Billi must save the day, sprinting a good mile to the hospital (will she get there in time?).
The fake wedding should provide comic relief from the pathos of impending death and shots of hospital waiting rooms, but neither a long scene about whether lobster or crab will be served at the banquet, nor another of the groom getting drunk and sick, nor various friends and family doing karaoke, advance the story. Billi’s brief speech at the banquet is also unrevealing (except in theory to make us anxious – will she give away the secret?).
There’s some mildly interesting but rather basic family discussions about the difference between Chinese culture and American culture, and Billi emotes about her wrenching move to the United States decades ago, a sign that China means more to her than she realized. All this is not enough to save this slow-moving, one-note, preachy film. To add insult to injury, it’s revealed during the credits that Nai Nai is still alive 6 years later. Another meaning to “based on a lie.”
Director: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma and Diana Lin
Language: Chinese and English; subtitled in English
Other Awards: 32 wins and 178 nominations
Runtime: 100 minutes
The Farewell ★★1/2
Availability: For purchase, rent or streaming on many platforms, including Amazon Prime, Google Play, Redbox and Fandango Now; see JustWatch here.