Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York, where she grew up with her Chinese parents, who immigrated when she was six years old. They live far from Billi's grandma, who they call Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), along with the rest of her aunts, uncles, and cousins. When Nai Nai is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, the family quickly pulls together a cousin's wedding as an excuse for the whole family to get together with Nai Nai for what might be the last time. The family decides to hide the diagnosis from Nai Nai, a not uncommon practice in Chinese culture, so she can enjoy whatever time she has left and not be burdened by the prospect of imminent death.
When she gets to Changchun, China, Billi makes the case that Nai Nai should get to say goodbye and has a right to know about her health, but everyone — her cousin, dad, uncle, great-aunt, and even a doctor — agree that it's a "good lie" and will allow Nai Nai to live peacefully. Her father (Tzi Ma) is the closest to siding with Billi, but he refuses to go against the rest of his family. It's his brother (Jiang Yongbo) who puts things into perspective in a way that Billi (and audiences raised in Western cultures) might not understand. In Eastern cultures, he explains, your body does not belong to only you; it is part of a larger whole. "It's our duty to carry this burden for her," he says.
Billi is fiercely independent, never wanting to ask for help from anyone, so the idea that a person's body might not completely belong to themselves is a shift for her. After all, the United States is in the middle of a political fight about whether or not the government has a right to control people's bodies. The Farewell weaves in several conflicts between Chinese and American culture, including education, money, and career aspirations. Billi is distressed, not only by Nai Nai's situation, but by the life in China she left behind as a child and how little of it remains (the movie is filled with establishing shots of the seemingly endless construction of new high-rises being built in Changchun.)
The movie is a natural tearjerker, given the intense tenderness of the subject. It's a study on how people grieve differently, how some barely cry, and others can barely hold back their tears. But it's also funny in all the ways you'd expect from the dynamics of a big family and from a grandma who’s lived long enough to not hold back her opinions. In one scene, the family is placing offerings on their grandpa's grave, including cigarettes, despite protests from some family members. "Let the man smoke, he's already dead," Billi's uncle says.
Awkwafina is a strong lead, going deeper than her comedic/musical background usually calls for, but the entire cast is sturdy. The score, too, is potent, and the cinematography is generous, letting the camera linger on shots longer than usual. They're all good elements on their own, but they're part of a greater, more special whole.
The Farewell. Written and directed by Lulu Wang. Opens Fri., Aug. 2 at Manor Theatre, 1729 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. www.manorpgh.com