The Farewell is writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature, and it’s a funny, bracing, tender and profoundly moving film.
“Sexy but poor” is how Billi (Awkwafina) describes herself half-jokingly to her mother, visiting her parents while trying to avoid the apartment she always owes rent on. Her parents also live in New York, the whole family having come over from China 25 years ago when Billi was six.
Now they have to go back – ostensibly for a family wedding, but really it’s an excuse to get the family together to spend time with, and say goodbye to, Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who is dying of cancer but doesn’t know it.
Tackling family, death, and generational differences from a Chinese-American perspective, The Farewell is also a paen to families and what holds them together, whatever your viewpoint on whether Nai Nai should or shouldn’t be told about her illness.
You’ll need to take tissues, and you’ll also need to book somewhere for dinner straight afterwards, as the spreads of food will leave you salivating. I haven’t come out so hungry since watching Big Night back in the ’90s. Eating, cooking, preparing – food is a way of giving love, forcing ritual on people, and – with its soothing repetition in recipes handed down generations – is also the ultimate distraction technique for families coping with crisis, even if no one’s that hungry.
Many of the issues The Farewell raises, about family across the generations, and how they deal with grief and impending loss, will resonate across the board. But fundamentally this film is about the influence of family and what it means in different cultures, and the tensions that arise trying to reconcile these differences. This is Billi’s farewell to Nai Nai, but also her farewell to her previous life where she didn’t quite manage to balance the two aspects of her. Billi’s visit to China makes her question her assumptions about the right thing to do; the American dream has left her feeling lost.
The question of whether they should tell Nai Nai about her illness hangs heavily over Billi. Initially she’s not even invited on the trip, as her parents are concerned she won’t be able to put on brave face for the duration.
She goes anyway, and from the moment of her arrival her sadness, and her bafflement at other people’s ability to hide the truth, threaten to overwhelm her. How do you say goodbye to someone who doesn’t know that’s what you’re doing? As her trip goes on though, it’s as much about picking up the threads of her past and making sure she isn’t also saying goodbye to her birthplace and its traditions.
Elderly grandmothers are also often the lynchpins of a scattered extended family; there’s an assumption they’ll always be there, so no one has to voice the fear that without them family relationships might slowly dissolve as people move away to cultures less focussed on the traditional idea of family in favour of new versions created out of shared interests. It can often seem like a death of a way of life, a farewell to much more than just one person.
It’s her uncle who explains to Billi that not telling Nai Nai about her diagnosis is the Chinese way, and part of what family means; Nai Nai’s children and grandchildren are deliberately choosing to shoulder the emotional burden for her.
While some of BIlli’s extended family is now scattered (Billi and her parents are in America, her cousin has moved to Japan, and is now returning with a Japanese fiancee) Nai Nai’s sister has been looking after her, leaving her own husband behind in another province. She tells Billi she will go back to live with her husband again and travel with him in retirement once her sister is gone.
Wang never shies away from the questions of life and death but she also has a light touch where it’s needed: the prickliness and oneupmanship between some relatives; the bickering and occasional goading across dinner tables; the doctor in the hospital who trained in England (Billi speaks to hims him in English about her grandmother’s condition; Nai Nai meanwhile considers an English-speaking doctor a potential match for her single granddaughter).
Families are nearly always funny, arguing over the inconsequential, often so they can avoid an argument over something more serious. Billi’s family visit grandpa’s grave, in a cemetery full of identical graves, leave offerings and bicker over whether it is a good idea to give him a cigarette, as he’d quit before he died.
Wang is particularly good on those generation-skipping relationships that often feel strongest and most special. How many of us felt we had more in common with our grandmothers than our mothers? Grannies don’t usually have to be the disciplinarians. They’re easier to talk to. They have much less of the guilt, so offer much more of the fun.
Awkwafina, a hilarious scene-stealer in Crazy Rich Asians, is a revelation. Her performance echoes with an intense understanding of the relationships she’s portraying. (Born in the US, the actress’s father is Chinese-American father and her mother was Korean – Awkwafina herself was raised by her grandmother after her mother died.) Desperately trying to hold in her emotions while initially unsure why she should, Billi often seems to be weighed down, sinking down into her own body even before she hears about her grandmother’s illness; a feeling that the culture she has embraced in the US doesn’t really value her or allow her to value her family. In Awkwafina’s portrayal we see every fear about her past and future through Billi’s eyes, as she struggles with the realities of family life.
The Farewell is based on Wang’s own experiences around moving to the US from China as a small child, and her own grandmother’s illness. “Based on a true lie” it says at the start of the film, and The Farewell is crammed with heartfelt and vibrantly explored truths about that lie.
Watch the trailer for The Farewell: