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" I’ve never felt such tension. It’s like riding a psychotic horse to a burning stable. "
— Robin Williams, The Birdcage

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The Farewell is an elegantly simple production, the ultimate in summertime counter-programming.

Crazy Austere Asians

Haohao (Han Chen) with his sister Billi (Awkwafina)
Haohao (Han Chen) with his sister Billi (Awkwafina)

How do you break bad news?

As The Farewell opens and characters are introduced, there’s a dinner conversation in which a version of an old joke is told. It’s the one about a family phoning home while on vacation to check on how things are going. They’re told their cat died. Taken aback, the breaker of bad news is told they should’ve cushioned the blow by telling a story about the cat getting stuck on the roof, hurt while getting rescued and then being taken to the vet, but unable to survive. The guy apologizes for not being more sensitive. The conversation then shifts. How’s Mom doing? To which the guy responds, “Well, she was on the roof...”

That opening joke sets the stage quite well because that’s basically what this family unit spends the bulk of the movie doing: hiding the matriarch’s cancer diagnosis from her while building a story around wedding plans as an excuse to visit her back home.

It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s eminently relatable. And, while half of the movie is subtitled (it’s a realistic portrayal of a family returning to China, where people... umm... speak Chinese), this is one of those movies with emotions that transcend all categories of culture and race. And it conquers the language barrier with grace.

Benign Shadow

While the topic of hiding a serious illness from an adored family member might sound like tear-jerking Terms of Endearment terrain, this one’s got some very pleasant surprises up its sleeve.

The antics behind the wedding planning are hilarious. The couple doesn’t really know each other that well yet and they are remarkably awkward together. While clearly planning a wedding itself is enough to demonstrate the great lengths this family is willing to go to in order to be with — and ultimately protect — a loved one, the mischief runs deeper as the mother’s condition is diagnosed with the hardcore medical term “benign shadow.” And this movie’s version of an action scene follows Billi (Awkwafina, Ocean’s Eight) as she intercepts her grandmother’s medical records and dutifully crafts a forgery that hides the cancer.

Of course, the ethics of all this are confronted. Is it really the right thing to do? Is it fair to Mom? Is it really the humane thing to do? It’s a traditional way of handling matters, but one that would most certainly raise all sorts of ire (and lawsuits) in the United States.

Through it all, that beloved mother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), carries on with her life, business as usual. She’s patient, durable — and supremely adaptable. In the same conversation, she can advise her flock about how it’s good to have a man around the house. Then counter that, humorously, with the observation that it’s also good to be an independent spirit.

And there’s this timeless pearl of wisdom: Life is not about what you do, but how you do it.

Blinded by the Lie

The Farewell starts with this note: “Based on an Actual Lie.” The inspiration was a very real situation from writer/director Lulu Wang’s own life. It’s a personal story, but one that works extremely well. It’s a story that demonstrates how similar we all are, regardless of culture or upbringing.

Counter that with another “true-life” movie playing the theatre circuit right now, Blinded by the Light. That story of a Pakistani Muslim living in England and becoming a huge Bruce Springsteen fan doesn’t quite work. It’s very much on par with The Farewell in its attempt to spin a personal story into something with mass appeal. And it boasts rockin’ tracks from Springsteen’s ’80s music.

So how is it The Farewell hits its mark while Blinded whiffs? In short, Blinded by the Light at its core is a “look at me” story that simply doesn’t generate excitement in following one man’s growth in musical taste, even as a key teacher proactively puts his writing in front of all the right faces. Arguably, her underplayed actions do more to advance his career than anything else.

In contrast, The Farewell is a “look at us” story of one family’s goofy attempt to deal with one of life’s worst challenges. There’s a much wider range of character and depth here, which in turn offers much more resonance.