With humor: The Farewell finds laughter in the face of death

A family gathers in China to celebrate a dying relative in the touching, funny, emotionally rich film The Farewell.  Starring (L to R) Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen." Courtesy of Big Beach. A family gathers in China to celebrate a dying relative in the touching, funny, emotionally rich film The Farewell. Starring (L to R) Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen.” Courtesy of Big Beach.

It takes a phenomenal storyteller to turn such a deeply personal story into a film like The Farewell. Based on the real experiences of writer-director Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a touching, funny, emotionally rich story about how the expression of love differs between cultures and communities. Sometimes the difference is radical and irreconcilable, but it is still love nonetheless.

Awkwafina stars as Billi, a young woman born in Changchun, China, and raised in the United States. We meet her talking on the phone to her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen)­—Nai Nai in Mandarin—chatting up a storm as if they didn’t live on opposite sides of the globe. Billi is shocked when she learns that her parents will be returning to Changchun to visit Nai Nai, who is dying but doesn’t know it.

The news is sudden, as is the plan: a fake family wedding will take place, they’ll allow the grandmother to have a leading role in planning it so she’ll live out her final days feeling needed, appreciated, and happy, all while hiding her terminal diagnosis. Most confusing for Billi is that no one sees this as dishonest or even all that unusual. Relatives, friends, even doctors, feel this is in Nai Nai’s best interest.

Billi already feels torn between two worlds and slightly estranged from her family. Her professional prospects in America are dwindling, and though she can’t reconcile the plans for her dying grandmother, she finds comfort in the way the family values cohesion and stability. She wants to feel more included in Changchun, but is still an American in some eyes, from her accent to her worldview.

Wang makes an intentional decision to avoid melodramatic fights, explosive collisions of culture, or anything that would artificially release the pressure. There are arguments, but Billi has enough emotional intelligence to know that there is no solution to the differing views on end-of-life care and medical ethics. All she can do is take her place in the family, insist that she does belong, and find a balance between the two approaches so that love, not anger or resentment, shines through.

And despite the heavy topic, this is a true comedy-drama—not a comedy with pockets of sincerity. The laughter comes from the breezy chemistry of the cast, never from the culture clash. Awkwafina gives Billi all of her charm and comic timing, but adds dimensions not seen in Oceans 8 or Crazy Rich Asians. Billi likes to kid around with people she loves, but she’s carrying the weight of her uncertainty in every scene. Zhao Shuzhen is phenomenal as Nai Nai, and the more we get to know her, the more we understand why someone would do everything they could to make her happy.

Wang’s story is extraordinary with many dimensions specific to her family and culture, but viewers of The Farewell will feel right at home. You’ll leave asking yourself what you might do in the same situation. A funny, sweet, thoughtful film with yet another star-making turn from Awkwafina, The Farewell is without question one of the year’s best films.

The Farewell / PG, 98 minutes / Violet Crown Cinema

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213. regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.

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