The Farewell

 

            There are many well-meaning, genteel folks who won't avail themselves of this movie, because it's (mostly) subtitled. They'll be missing out on a little gem.

            Billi (Nora Lum, known by her rapper name Awkwafina) is a 30-ish single woman living by herself in New York, though not exactly without a struggle.  She talks to her landlord about postponing the rent.  She goes home to Mom and Dad's to do her wash, but threatens to discontinue doing so if they continue to fuss at her about her life choices (like credit card debt).  Her Mom, Jian (Diana Lin), and her Dad, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), having immigrated to the U.S. 25 years ago, are pretty much culturally assimilated Americans, but they still speak Chinese to each other, and to Billi.  Billi has fond remembrances of spending time with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), her father's mother, and speaks to her frequently on the phone.  Billi is shocked when her parents tell her that Nai Nai has a terminal disease, and she is even more shocked when her parents tell her that according to Chinese custom, the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about it.

            Billi, thoroughly Americanized, can't believe this is even possible, but not only are her parents determined to keep the awful secret, but so is the rest of the family---Nai Nai's sister, and her other grown son, who's been living in Japan, as well as his wife and their young son, Haohao.  In fact, the whole family has also agreed to plan a wedding for Haohao, with a Japanese girl he's only been dating for three months, as a way of getting the family together, to see Nai Nai one more time, while still conspiring to keep her in the dark.  To make matters worse, Billi's parents tell her that they weren't planning to invite her to the sham wedding, because they're afraid Billi would “spill the beans.”

            Billi decides to fly back to China, anyway, and surprises the rest of the family, who've been told that Billi wouldn't be coming because she's too busy at work.  Through some difficult family interaction, eventually Billi finally relents to the will of the others.  They tell her that this is the difference between the East and West.  In the West, people think first about themselves.  In the East, it's about being connected, to family, and to community (which brings up the awkward question---to ethnicity?).

            Zhao Shuzhen turns out to be a delight as the charming, vivacious grandmother, but there are some tensions besides keeping her in the dark about her medical condition.  She continues to have episodes where she runs out of breath, coughs a lot, and tires quickly and easily.   Haohao seems not at all thrilled about going through with this wedding, and his Japanese bride, who doesn't even speak Chinese, looks perpetually confused.  And Nai Nai's sister, sacrificing being with her husband in order to care for Nai Nai, carries more burden the longer Nai Nai enjoys good health (and the end of the movie indicates she's still going strong).

            No violence.  No sex.  No nudity.  No sci-fi sequences.  No superheroes in spandex.  No car chases. No verbal profanities or obscenities.  No specialized computer graphic imaging bringing animals to life.  Just family relationships, in all their unavoidable awkwardness.  Don't put the burden of lofty expectation on it.  Just enjoy it for what it is:  a little gem of a family film.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association