Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:
When a movie starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, what next? The first thing we saw in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952) was an X-ray of a man’s stomach, with a tumor clearly visible, and Lulu Wang’s new film, “The Farewell,” sets off with similar starkness. An aged woman undergoes a CT scan, and we learn that she has Stage IV lung cancer and three months to live. But here’s the difference. Kurosawa’s hero, a meek civil servant, took stock of his mortality and decided to waste not a drop of the time that remained. Wang’s elderly lady, by contrast, is a merry old soul, already skilled at being alive, and requiring no further encouragement. So nobody tells her that she’s going to die.
She is known as Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), or “Grandma,” and her home is in Changchun, in northeastern China. Meanwhile, her beloved granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) is in New York, and it’s the distance between them—generational as well as geographical—that the film explores. When Billi was six, a quarter of a century ago, she and her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), moved to America; they still live there, and speak English among themselves. Billi has her own apartment, plus a ring in her nostril and, most recently, a rejection letter for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Great.
What singles Billi out, though, is the aura of loss and loneliness that enfolds her, even before she hears of her grandmother’s illness, and credit for that must go to Awkwafina. Well in advance of her star turn in “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), she was famed as a rapper, and her music videos, such as “My Vag,” rejoice in a genial bawdy. It’s remarkable to find such swagger—“New York City, bitch, / That’s where I come from, / Not where I moved to,” she declaims, in “NYC Bitche$”—replaced, in “The Farewell,” by the slouch of diffidence and doubt. As Billi, she gives a master class in hangdoggery, complete with bad posture and a lazy gait; it’s as if the land of opportunity has schooled her in disappointment. When her parents fly to China to be with Nai Nai, urging Billi to stay behind, it’s no surprise that she swiftly disobeys, and follows them. Changchun city, bitch, that’s where she goes to, and where most of the film takes place.