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Movie review: Sundance's 'The Farewell' is one of the best movies you'll see this year

“THE FAREWELL” — 4 stars — Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao, Diana Lin, Tzi Ma, Han Chen; PG (thematic material, brief language and some smoking); Broadway; running time: 100 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — “The Farewell” is an adorable film that should top your “must-see” list.

Lulu Wang's movie, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, opens with these enigmatic words: “Based on an actual lie.” Over the next 100 minutes, we slowly unpack the meaning of this statement while we watch a multi-generational family in China wrestle with its matriarch’s terminal illness.

Our POV follows Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling 20-something in New York City who has been in America since her family left China when she was 5. Billi lives on her own but is behind on the rent, and just after the film opens, she gets rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship.

"The Farewell," starring Awkwafina, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is playing at Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.
"The Farewell," starring Awkwafina, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is playing at Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.
Provided by A24 Films

Billi’s relationship with her parents is strained in the usual way, toggling genuine love and frustrated expectations, but her anchor is her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), who still lives in China. But things go from strained to unbearable when Mom (Diana Lin) and Dad (Tzi Ma) are forced to give Billi the terrible news: Nai Nai has Stage 4 lung cancer and only a few months to live.

Just that alone would set the stage for a thoughtful family drama, but this is where “The Farewell” really gets interesting. Per tradition, Nai Nai’s family decides to hide the results of her diagnosis from her, telling her she’s only suffering from “benign shadows.”

Billi objects to the deception, but her parents explain they are choosing to bear Nai Nai’s emotional weight for her during the brief time she has left. As a compromise, the family gathers in China under the ruse of a wedding celebration for Nai Nai’s grandson Haohao (Han Chen), hoping to say their goodbyes in a more clandestine fashion.

What follows is a fascinating and touching film that blends heartwarming drama, subtle wit and comedy and a thoughtful examination of the cultural differences between the East and the West. It is alternately hilarious, dark and tearful — low-key enough to fly under the radar, but bold enough to stick with you long after you leave the theater.

Once we arrive in China, “The Farewell” thrusts us into a world that feels foreign and familiar at the same time. As the family wrestles to keep their secret from Nai Nai and goes through the motions preparing for Haohao’s fake wedding, Wang advances the plot against uproarious background scenes as the phony couple takes engagement photos and the family gathers at a cemetery to remember Nai Nai's husband.

"The Farewell," which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, opens with these enigmatic words: “Based on an actual lie.” Over the next 100 minutes, we slowly unpack the meaning of this statement while we watch a multi-generational family in China w
"The Farewell," which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, opens with these enigmatic words: “Based on an actual lie.” Over the next 100 minutes, we slowly unpack the meaning of this statement while we watch a multi-generational family in China wrestle with its matriarch’s terminal illness.
Provided by A24 Films

At the center of all of this is Billi, who remains torn by the cultural influences surrounding her. She feels Nai Nai deserves to know her own fate, but also feels love for the culture and world that is slipping away whenever a childhood memory is bulldozed for another high-rise housing complex.

“The Farewell” is packed full of memorable scenes and moments, which Wang ties together with a creative and engaging style that involves everything from the framing of her shots to the quirky music playing in the background.

Simply put, “The Farewell” is one of the best movies you’ll see this year. As a study of East-West relations, it exceeds last year’s enjoyable romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” — which also starred Awkwafina — and achieves a masterful blend of emotions that brings the universal human experience to life.

Rating explained: “The Farewell” is presented in English and Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles. It is rated PG for some adult themes and dramatic situations.