#30 — The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)
The best movies sit and resonate with a viewer, as if taking up permanent residence in the soul. Even as I write that, I understand the sentimental is almost unbearably syrupy, instilling in cinema a kind of cheap magic, the stuff of the most self-important, insufferable Academy Award ceremony clip packages. But it’s also the best means I have of explaining the way certain films can make a perfectly fine first impression and then slowly, surely blossom in the memory until full-scale adoration is the only proper response. There’s no other film on this list of mine that rose higher in my estimation between the first time I watched its closing credits crawl to the moment I put a number next to it than Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. I’m halfway convinced that another six months of rumination would prompt me to edge it up another five spaces or so.
The endlessly admirable artistry of The Farewell stems from its heartfelt reason for being. Wang based the story on a situation from her own family, centered on the culturally motivated concealment of a fatal diagnosis. In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is an adrift young adult living in New York who is devastated when she finds out her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shu-zhen) has terminal lung cancer, and her emotions are roiled further by the revelation that the family chooses not to tell here, adhering to a Chinese norm of not burdened a loved one with the knowledge of pending death. Against the wishes of her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), Billi tags along on the trip back to the family homeland of China, a congregation of far-flung family members under the masquerade of a wedding but truly to give the woman one last time with the extended clan before her expected departure.
The film mines some comedy from the efforts at deception, but Wang is more concerned with exploring all the large and small ways deception is deployed to preserve relationships and, occasionally, a preferred sense of self. And Wang, herself an immigrant from China, takes great care in detailing the cultural differences, large and small, the deeply American Billi sorts through in returning to the place where she was born but remembers only faintly. Her time in the U.S. has erased this part of her, but it’s left it smudged. Awkwafina perfectly embodies the struggles of a person in the part of the long arc of growing up when they realize there was a lie residing in the implicit promise of adulthood providing the certainty of a settled direction. With a downturned mouth and slumped gait, she gives the impression of an individual who has been partially collapsed by the weight of life, which works in conjunction beautifully with a story that poses questions about whether hard truth should impede enjoying every small, gifted moment.
Wang knew that some viewers might find her story’s central conceit to be implausible, so she asserts the autobiographical bona fides by opening the film with the words “Based on an actual lie.” One of the more intriguing aspects of The Farewell is the argument it makes that there are a lot of actual lies out there in the ether and that maybe, just maybe, that’s not so bad. It’s less the accuracy of the statement than the motivation behind it. And if kindness is the guidance principle, it might be okay for truth to exist on a sliding scale.