Lulu Wang's second feature film as writer-director, The Farewell, starts with a statement on screen: "Based on an actual lie." This touching, tender and occasionally tough watch comes from Wang's personal experience, something she first related on the podcast This American Life. It inspired her to turn it into the follow-up to her directorial debut, 2014's Posthumous, which starred Brit Marling and Jack Huston.
While that told of an artist who poses as his own brother after his death is falsely reported, The Farewell is also about the finality of life. The "lie" in question in this film refers to a ruse spun by a Chinese family, who deliberately hide from their sick grandmother that she's dying of stage-four lung cancer. As Chinese law doesn't require doctors to disclose diagnoses to patients, such familial deception is apparently quite common, so as not to stress the terminally ill in their final months.
In The Farewell, this clan decide to fake a wedding celebration so they can justify descending on their grandmother's home to spend time with her – maybe the last time. It's so ludicrous, it might just work. That we realise Wang's own family went through this elaborate deception makes the scenario that bit funnier. Even if we've never told such an outrageous lie ourselves, it's all too easy to relate to how we believe we know what's best for our relatives.
Wang doesn't play The Farewell for farce; there's a melancholy streak to it, right from the beginning, as we meet Billi (Awkwafina), who has been living in America for years after her parents left China to seek out a better life. For Billi, life isn't exactly going swimmingly; she's just been turned down for a prestigious arts grant – the Guggenheim Fellowship – though she keeps that hidden from her relatives.
When she visits her parents in New York, she discovers that her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), is sick – though her mother and father (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) don’t want her to come to China for this fake wedding. “You can’t hide your emotions,” her mother says, believing that Billi will give the game away if she turns up and starts crying. Billi promptly ignores them and arrives unannounced.
Wang uses this set-up as a springboard into a number of areas – chief amongst them, cultural differences. At one point, Billi is being shown her room in the dingy hotel she's staying in by the enthusiastic receptionist. While he lugs her suitcase up several flights of stairs because the lift isn't working, it gives him ample time to quiz her on how amazing America must be. Of course, perception and reality are two very different things.
Keeping it snappy, Wang sets up her scenes very cunningly. In one visit to the hospital, Nai Nai tries to set Billi up with the handsome doctor, who happens to have studied in England. Of course, he’s able to converse with Billi about Nai Nai’s illness in English, while Nai Nai – sitting right there – has no idea what they’re talking about. Communication, or lack of it, is another major theme.
As the story unfolds, it heads towards the wedding – between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) and his Japanese girlfriend who, due to language barriers, is highly confused about what’s going on and seems happy just to play along with this extensive charade, which includes the family paying for a lobster dinner for all the guests, to show off in front of the neighbours.
In America, The Farewell has already been a sleeper hit. When it made its bow, it beat Marvel behemoth Avengers: Endgame for the highest per-cinema average – on opening day it's box office takings per cinema was $87,833 (Dh322,566) compared Avengers: Engame's $76,601 per cinema – and it's easy to see why. Traditionally, the Asian-American community has been badly underserved by films (and when they are, it is with diamond-encrusted fantasy nonsense like Crazy Rich Asians).
So to find a film with around 70 per cent of its dialogue in Mandarin is refreshing. Don't be surprised if The Farewell picks up an Oscar nomination or two in the coming months. Awkwafina, who is also in Crazy Rich Asians, as well as Ocean's Eight and Marvel's upcoming superhero movie The Eternals, is arguably as good as she's ever been on screen here, maybe because she dials her usual chatterbox style right down to craft a more subdued character.
Yet what works about The Farewell is that it's not based on a star performance; the dinner table scenes and the convincing family dynamic are what make it tick. Wang also manages to capture the changing face of China – it was shot in Changchun – as Nai Nai and Billi pass comment on houses that are no longer there. It's this that lends The Farewell a universal quality; that we are all – whatever lies we tell ourselves – only here for a limited time.
The Farewell is in cinemas across the UAE