Firstpost at Sundance: In The Farewell, Lulu Wang captures the ebb and flow of familial love, distilled to its essence

Prahlad Srihari

Feb 04, 2019 10:45:56 IST

Lulu Wang's The Farewell opens with the cheeky disclaimer — "based on an actual lie." The lie in question pertains to an extended Chinese family, who choose to hide from their ailing matriarch that she is dying from stage 4 lung cancer — as is sometimes tradition with terminally ill people in China, we're told. But for Billi (Awkwafina), who's grown up in the US and has always maintained a close relationship with her beloved grandma Nai Nai, this strategic non-disclosure is a hard concept to grasp.

Firstpost at Sundance: In The Farewell, Lulu Wang captures the ebb and flow of familial love, distilled to its essence

A still from The Farewell, which was screened in the US Dramatic Competition section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A24

The entire family decides to come together to say their goodbyes but under the guise of a wedding masterminded between Billi's cousin and his Japanese girlfriend. Though Billi is clearly devastated, she maintains the "good lie" to shield her grandmother from the tragic truth so they can all enjoy one final happy reunion.

Injecting what is a tragic setup with comic elements requires a precarious balancing act from the filmmaker and star alike, but Wang and Awkwafina traverse the tightrope without a wobble. Wang handles the seriocomic switching, walking the fine line between bittersweet and sugary without ever toppling onto the wrong side of that divide. And she does it so artfully with perception and pathos, The Farewell feels like a beautifully tender poem about the ebbs and flows of life, of love, of family, all distilled to their essence.

Actors, from left to right, Diana Lin, writer/director Lulu Wang, Awkwafina, and Tzi Ma pose at the premiere of "The Farewell" during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

(From L-R) Diana Lin, writer/director Lulu Wang, Awkwafina, and Tzi Ma pose at the premiere of The Farewell during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

Because it's a true story (a version of which Wang had previously shared on NPR’s This American Life podcast), the script has a remarkable authenticity to it as Wang mixes comedic observations about her own family with all the awkward drama that rises out of its unique setup. She lays bare all the uncomfortable family dynamics — between the various in-laws — in a simple, unembellished manner without ever resorting to melodrama.

After her breakout roles in Ocean's Eight and Crazy Rich Asians, it is particularly rewarding to see Awkwafina outside her comfort zone of fast-talking, high-spirited roles. But she still maintains her humour despite the gripping sense of imminent tragedy. All the supporting actors too seem so finely attuned to the interior lives of Wang's family — from her affable grandma (Shuzhen Zhou) to her straight-faced parents (played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) to her quietly suffering cousin (played by Han Chen).

Awkwafina poses for a portrait to promote the film "The Farewell" at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

Awkwafina poses for a portrait to promote her film The Farewell at the Salesforce Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Image from AP/Taylor Jewell

At times playful, at times poignant, but never dull or uninspiring, The Farewell is a near-perfect film because it's impossible to distinguish its flaws from its joys.

Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei
Rating: ★★★★☆

Updated Date: Feb 08, 2019 07:00:44 IST

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