In "The Farewell," Lulu Wang's stealthy, melancholy charmer of a movie, a family mounts a grand illusion in the name of love. The story follows a 30-year-old New Yorker named Billi (Awkwafina) who returns to her Chinese hometown to see her grandmother, her beloved "Nai Nai" (Zhao Shuzhen), one last time. Her relatives have chosen to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, hoping to spare her unnecessary fear and forcing themselves to say goodbye without really saying goodbye, with brave, strained smiles and held-back tears.
Billi's family has already mastered the art of emotional concealment, something I suspect many in the audience, including but hardly limited to those of Chinese descent, will instinctively recognize. With exquisite poise, wry humor and delicate swells of feeling, "The Farewell" addresses and gently critiques the stoicism that Asians and Asian Americans are often taught to project as a matter of pride and dignity. In hiding the truth from Nai Nai, the family is merely taking a common cultural belief to a logical extreme: Cathartic hugs and tears are all well and good, but the most profound expressions of love are those that remain oblique and unspoken.
Or are they? Wang, who drew the story from her own experience (and told an early version of it in a 2016 episode of "This American Life"), gives her characters and her audience plenty of room to disagree. Billi, her onscreen alter ego, disapproves of the whole charade, and she generates much of the story's conflict by trying to persuade her relatives to come clean with Nai Nai. They in turn scold her for being so self-centered, so hopelessly American.
The more complicated truth – one that goes to the heart of this wise, emotionally generous movie – is that Billi is a woman caught between two worlds. Her defiance may be a product of Western individualism (and so, some might argue, are her writerly aspirations and her empty bank account). But it is also a sign of her fierce devotion to a family that means everything to her.
The movie opens with a scene that shrewdly cuts across cultural and generational divides: Billi wanders the noisy streets of New York while talking on the phone with Nai Nai, who is seated quietly in her home city of Changchun. Though they are many decades and thousands of miles apart, the two have no trouble communicating (Billi speaks fluent if sometimes faltering Mandarin), and they retain a close bond from Billi's early childhood, part of which she spent living with Nai Nai before moving with her parents to the United States.
When Billi later stops by to visit those parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin), with whom she has a close but sometimes combative relationship, a double bombshell awaits: Nai Nai has no more than three months to live, and she must be shielded from the news at all costs; a wedding is being thrown for a cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), to justify a family reunion. Billi isn't invited – her parents fear she'll be too emotional and spill the beans – but she buys a plane ticket anyway and shows up at Nai Nai's apartment, catching everyone off-guard even as she reluctantly submits to the ruse.
Wang made her feature debut with "Posthumous," a 2014 comedy premised on a very different game with death, and she has fun letting the various machinations play out here: the last-minute banquet arrangements, the careful manipulation of Nai Nai's medical test results, the barely hidden anxiety we see in her relatives' faces. (The superb supporting cast includes Jiang Yongbo, Zhang Jing and Hong Lu.)
But in some ways, "The Farewell" is most remarkable for what doesn't happen. Sidestepping the temptations of broad farce or melodrama, Wang stakes out a zone of low-key observational realism, dispensing her sympathies and teasing out emotional subtleties with a graceful, assured hand. The wry comic distance she maintains from her characters – amplified by the satiric flourishes in Anna Franquesa Solano's sharply framed widescreen images and Alex Weston's singsong score – speak to a filmmaker who is not only personally invested in her material but deeply at ease with it.
Wang immerses us in the warm, comforting intimacy of a Chinese family gathering where a hastily proffered meat pie or an affectionate slap on the bottom is the easiest way to say "I love you." And despite her declining health, Nai Nai leaves no doubt about who's in charge.
Zhao gives a wonderfully sly performance as a woman who is opinionated and exasperated as only an octogenarian matriarch can be, but whose stubbornness is more than matched by the depth of her love and loyalty. You realize just how irreplaceable Nai Nai is and how much she's done for her children and grandchildren, most of whom no longer call China home.
Not long after Billi checks into a sketchy hotel near her grandmother's apartment, a chatty clerk asks her, "What do you think is better, China or America?" The question is played for laughs, but it comes back to haunt the whole family in the movie's strongest, most unresolved scene – a verbal sparring match in which various illusions about Chinese national pride and the lure of the American dream are at once flaunted and quietly dismantled.
The clashes that play out over the course of this celebration – between parents and children, East and West, the collective good and individual desire – are nothing new. You might discern echoes of movies like "The Wedding Banquet," Ang Lee's 1993 comedy about a very different matrimonial deception, or the more recent "Crazy Rich Asians," in which Awkwafina proved herself to be a born scene stealer. She's superb here in her first dramatic leading role, using her deadpan comic instincts to underscore the wryness of Billi's worldview: Growing up with a bicultural identity, among other things, gives you a healthy sense of the absurd.
But the path that Wang clears through this well-trod territory is very much her own. A less clear-eyed or judicious sensibility might have sent "The Farewell" hurtling into solipsism and sentimentality, rather than steering it toward an ending as graceful and moving as it is ingeniously open-ended.
You will emerge from this movie thinking of Nai Nai, but you may also be thinking about Billi's parents and their tough but resilient marriage, or about a contemporary China that is changing more quickly than its identically clustered high-rise developments can keep up with.
More than anything, you are likely to admire just how deftly Wang subverts her premise and its ostensible limitations: A family that forbids itself from shedding tears succeeds, by the end, at earning a few of your own.
(In Mandarin and English with English subtitles)
Rated: PG, for thematic material, brief language and some smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes