Movie review: The Farewell (2019)

What is a “good lie”?

The FarewellThe movie The Farewell address the apparently imminent death of a family member. Importantly, it’s about a huge lie designed to keep the news from that matriarch of the family. Why? Because it’s the Chinese way.

Awkafina stars as Billi, who now lives in New York City, as do her parents. But she’s often on the phone with her Nai Nai or grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou) in China, who she loves dearly. Billi is devastated when she hears that Nai Nai is dying of cancer. But she is bewildered when she learns that a mock wedding is being arranged so that Nai Nai’s family can say goodbye to her without Nai Nai realizing it.

The cliché in film/literature is that the more specific the story, the more universal the application. If you’ve ever gone to more than three weddings, you’ve experienced the groanworthy elements of this one, including the music. The brief appearance of the tall, handsome, unmarried doctor who helps maintain the fiction would play just as well if the characters were Jewish or Italian.

A placard early on says “Based On An Actual Lie”. What is a “good lie”? Billi’s uncle, who lives in Japan explains that in America, they’re into personal rights and responsibility. But in the East, it’s more of a collective burden. There is great effort extended in maintaining the façade.

The Farewell features some heavy themes. Yet it is often quite funny. The viewer relates to Billi, as she struggles with what she thinks is right versus what the family has agreed to. It’s also a paean to what one consider “home.” Awkwafina’s performance is quite credible.

The movie also stars Tzi Ma as Billi’s father. He is the quintessential, “Oh, THAT guy.” He’s very good, as is the rest of the cast. I should note, in case you’re allergic to such things, that the film, written and directed by Lulu Wang, features subtitles, not 100% of the time, but often enough.

My wife and I saw The Farewell on July 29 at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany, when I scored two free passes. We were sitting in the middle of the third row from the front. I told the woman on the aisle that there was a 90% chance that someone would come to sit on the two interior seats in the row after the lights went down; I was correct.

Since there were no previews, this meant their disruption was during an early scene. Then one was on her phone, which later went off. Had I been sitting next to her – my wife was – I would have been severely tempted to take the device away from her.