Say hello to ‘The Farewell’ … one of this summer’s best films

‘The Farewell’

Rated PG: Thematic material, brief language and some smoking.

Playing at: Cinemark’s Movies 16.

Credits: Directed by Lulu Wang. Screenplay by Lulu Wang. Music by Alex Weston. Cinematography by Anna Franquesa Solano. Edited by Matt Friedman and Michael Taylor. Production design by Yong OK Lee.

Stars: Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Aoi Mizuhara, Han Chen and Yongbo Jiang.

Bill’s rating: Four of five stars

Writer-director Lulu Wang’s charming “The Farewell” is one of this year’s sweeter movies.

Inspired by a true story which she, somewhat ironically, explains is based on a family lie, “The Farewell” emerges an emotionally challenging tale of different cultures. It also is a funnier motion picture  than most would expect – although it may take time before viewers work up the courage to laugh.

Mind you, I disagreed with my filmgoing partner when he departed the theater predicting multiple Oscar nominations in this movie’s future, and not just because Lubbock has been very slow to discover it.

Film distributor A24 has yet to bombard the media with supportive advertising and, while “The Farewell” has earned several grades of 100 on such sites as Metacritic.com, no one has been reporting long lines. In fact, boxofficemojo.com this week had “The Farewell” ranked 67th with a total box office of just over $13 million.

Which is a shame because, even taking into account occasional flaws, the picture easily entertains anyone willing to consider cultural differences described.

For that matter, Wang also deserves high praise for the manner in which she balances scenes acted in English with her key story, which unfolds in Mandarin Chinese and English subtitles.

Pacing is more erratic in the film’s second half, but what should one expect when a celebratory wedding is planned only after learning of a secret death sentence – and relatives are expected to hide their true feelings throughout.

Having capitalized on her work in films “Oceans 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” rising Asian-American star Awkwafina provides a more subtle performance here as Billi, a single woman in her early 30s seeking a writing career in New York City. But she still takes time to visit by telephone with her grandmother, whom she calls Nai Nai, in China several times each week.

As the film opens, her grandmother, played delightfully by Shuzhen Zhou, has undergone a CT scan at a nearby hospital. It reveals she has stage-four lung cancer and a predicted life span of three months.

The lie soon follows.

Whereas in the United States, doctors and families usually treat cancer with transparency, informing the patient of all details so affairs can be put in order, the exact opposite takes place in China … at least in this story.

The grandmother’s sister quietly accepts the doctor’s diagnosis, then tells the patient there’s nothing wrong with her. The doctor is told not to inform his patient of accurate findings, while arrangements are made for the woman’s relatives to pay her a final visit in China.

Billi is initially told to stay home in New York because her parents do not trust her to lie. And if she does lie, they do not trust her to refrain from accidentally giving away the truth.

So her family heads to China and she stays home – but only long enough for her to use a credit card for airfare and show up at her grandmother’s house in time for family dinner.

Nai Nai herself seems to have forgotten she once lied to one of her own dying relatives.

The Chinese family’s point of view is it’s their duty to carry such a heavy emotional burden and that telling Nai Nai the truth would force her to carry too much emotional weight when she already might face physical difficulties.

That said, the lengths to which her family goes to keep this secret is very funny.

For example, they reason all of Nai Nai’s relatives can have a valid, believable excuse to come see her before she dies if they force one of her nephews and his fiancé to move up their wedding.

The wedding is planned to great expense, despite the bride not yet being fluent in Chinese. Aoi Mizuhara is hilarious as the bride-to-be, never speaking, constantly smiling, taking direction without knowing what anyone is saying. Nai Nai simply concludes she must not be a very affectionate child.

Meanwhile, the groom (Han Chen) quietly views his wedding as multiple opportunities to keep eating.

Nai Nai’s two sons, brothers played by Tzi Ma (Billi’s dad) and Yongbo Jiang, give in to alcohol more than once. A nicely directed scene at the wedding reception finds Jiang intending to deliver a toast to the young newlyweds, only to swerve into an out-of-place, weepy tribute about how much he loves his mother.

Zhao, whose character tiptoes close to the truth without figuring it out, is delightful throughout. Some are bound to wonder whether Wang might allow her a surprising revelation of her own; for example, I questioned whether there was a separate Mandarin word for cancer.

But the lie provides a consistent anchor for well-meaning hilarity.

No doubt, many will enjoy more laughs at a cemetery, where a wedding tradition finds favorite foods and flowers shared at the graves of dead relatives who cannot attend. (It may bring to mind Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo, but just to an extent.)

Billi’s mom, a precious performance by Diana Lin, rarely gets her way.

But it’s Nai Nai herself who is shocked when the men light cigarettes for the altar of her dead husband. “He quit!” she exclaims.

One son’s reaction: “Ma, let the man smoke. He’s already dead. What else can happen?”

Visually, the film shines when Wang reveals a weary family walking back to their hotel to sleep. All are lost in thought, likely content they’ve pulled off yet another subterfuge. In short, they have given Nai Nai at least one more happy day.

Awkwafina’s Billi also finds she can go with the flow, coming to grips with cultural differences, setting aside personal preferences.

Meanwhile, Wang saves another twist for her final frames, assuring even more smiles.

Gage’s rating: Four of five stars

With so many big-name movies on the horizon this fall, it would be easy to overlook smaller films lacking expensive advertising campaigns.

“The Farewell” is precisely one of those movies; in fact, although I was quick to notice its high review scores, I was unsure what to expect in terms of filmmakers or story.

Happily, this was a great joy to watch from beginning to end; it brought a smile to my face despite a traditionally sad story.

That story, simply put, is about a Chinese grandma diagnosed with cancer.

Her family, with members in several countries, finds out and is determined to keep her from the truth.

While this idea might seem odd for Americans, it apparently is normal procedure in East Asian countries. The screenplay goes into detail regarding how different East Asian and Western cultures really are – from how we perceive other countries and their practices, to what one might think of his own country and its practices.

I’m glad they touched on this subject, although repeating it could have hampered pacing. Happily, they let  the story progress.

That story mainly focuses on Billi, played by Awkwafina, who believes her family should tell Nai Nai (her grandmother) the truth. However, she agrees to keep the family secret. The family even plans a wedding as an excuse for so many relatives returning home (before grandma passes away).

While the story focuses on the perspective of Billi, it also shows the family coming together for what is likely a final time. That in itself is sad.

“The Farewell” is remarkable and heartfelt. Despite the pace slowing at times, one appreciates the original story … which also happens to be a true story.

The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, led by a great performance from Awkwafina. She is comfortable in the role and often fun to watch, especially when communicating with Nai Nai, played by Shuzhen Zhao.

Zhao’s Nai Nai inspires many smiles. She would be my favorite character, if not for Billi.

This grandmother is vibrant, fun and enjoys an authentic relationship with Billi. The actors’ chemistry leads to several great scenes, taking the movie to a higher level.

Also effective are Billi’s parents: Haiyan, Nai Nai’s son, played by Tzi Ma; and Jian (Diana Lin). They provide a breath of fresh air when showing how some legal immigrants view America.

The supporting cast also impresses, including Haibin (Yongbo Jiang), the brother of Haiyan. Haibin moved to Japan and takes the middle ground, not really taking a position unless agreeing Billi shouldn’t tell Nai Nai about her disease.

Action is at a minimum, yet the jokes bring smiles. “The Farewell” has plenty of funny moments and, in addition, viewers will be pleased by a perceived authenticity.

The film is not without flaws, yet  filmmakers do a lot of things right, the result being an entertaining movie.

This is my favorite summer movie by a country mile and, for now, ranks with my favorite films this year. I am so glad this movie caught my eye; it surpassed all my hopes and expectations.