For her second feature, up-and-coming writer-director Lulu Wang has drawn on her own experiences to craft a touching story of a Chinese family, told from the point of view of a young Americanized woman who returns to her homeland for a wedding—and a possible funeral.
Awkwafina, who has revealed her bold screen presence in such films as Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, excels in the leading role. She is struggling to get along in New York City, waiting for word about a fellowship while falling behind in her rent. She has a somewhat fractious relationship with her mother, less so with her father…but as we learn, all three feel a deep connection with the family matriarch, familiarly known as Nai Nai (played by the endearing Shuzhen Zhou). When they learn that she has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, they travel home to Changchun in order to be with her. It has been decided not to tell her about her condition so that she won’t be unhappy in her final months. The pretense for a large family reunion is a wedding, and Nai Nai is only too happy to plan the banquet for her guileless grandson and his Japanese bride.
Wang’s feature was shepherded through the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting labs and it shows. The family members and their various inter-relationships are fully fleshed-out. While often a source of humor, they aren’t sitcom stick figures. They are layered, and we learn more about them with each successive scene, especially at the wedding banquet.
Awkwafina’s character is easy to relate to, at least for a Westerner, because she has lived the most assimilated life, growing up in America. She isn’t fluent in the Chinese language, like most of her far-flung family, but she has maintained a meaningful long-distance relationship with her grandmother.
The Farewell takes its time unfolding but pays off in a deeply moving conclusion. While some aspects of the story deal specifically with Chinese culture and tradition, the fundamental ideas are universal. That speaks to Wang’s growing confidence as a cinematic storyteller. She has cast the film to perfection and her actors convey every nuance of their characters. This sleeper is a bright spot in the summer movie lineup.