If we’re lucky (and we usually are), any given year will provide two or three truly outstanding films that transcend all others and remind us why we go to the movies—why we pony up ten, fifteen bucks, munch grease-lubed popcorn, and tolerate the tool behind us whanging our seatback all too often.
It’s only July, but writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell belongs squarely in that category. From the opening card, which tells us that we’re about to see something “based on an actual lie,” straight through to what will surely endure as one of the most memorable single shots in 2019 cinema, this is a film that delivers on every front. And though it’s predominantly set in China (with occasional subtitles) and steeped in Chinese culture and traditions, it’s as accessible and relatable as they come—a surprisingly touching and often-hilarious story of one family’s love for each other.
A never-better Awkwafina stars as Billi, a Chinese-American in New York who dreams of becoming a writer. She’s broke, however, is in danger of losing her apartment soon, and is also the recent recipient of a rejection letter for a Guggenheim Fellowship. The cherry on top comes when her parents let slip that her beloved grandma Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has metastatic lung cancer and three months to live. As the custom is to keep terminal patients in the dark, Nai Nai isn’t aware of her diagnosis, and Billi’s family has planned a trip to China to see her (under the guise of a cousin’s rushed wedding) one last time. Since Billi is terrible at hiding her emotions—making her family is convinced she’ll spill the beans—she isn’t invited. Naturally, though, she flies over on her own, unable to keep from seeing her Nai Nai one last time.
Drawing on her own real-life experiences (which the world heard for the first time in a 2016 segment of This American Life), Wang has put together a soulful and touching work that will delight you even as your heart slowly begins to break. Billi’s family is a motley crew of personalities that, despite speaking Mandarin and devouring food with chopsticks, doesn’t seem foreign at all. There’s an Uncle Haibin at every holiday dinner table, and a little cousin Hao Hao at every reunion. We all have to deal with death and disease and dysfunction, and whether it’s found halfway around the world or in the split-level ranch next door, it looks (and more importantly feels) exactly the same anywhere you go.
Beautifully punctuated by long, single-take shots, which allow the action unfold like works of art on a tapestry (including the centerpiece of the film, the delightfully goofy and awkward wedding), The Farewell is a near-perfect film with the power to move you in unexpected ways. It’s a bittersweet slice of life that will leave you wanting more and more, as you gently come to realize that the world truly is a small place, after all.