THE FAREWELL: FILM REVIEW
I’m grateful that a film like The Farewell was able to receive funding from a notable production company (namely A24), as it magnified an important story about being caught between two equally important, but extremely different cultures.
Directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell revolves around Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American 20-year old who just found out that her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), or paternal grandma, is at the edge of her death bed. Instead of telling Nai Nai that she has terminal lung cancer, Billi’s family decides to keep the diagnosis a secret, and instead plans a wedding for Billi’s cousin in China to bring the family together before Nai Nai passes. Even though Billi’s parents tell her to remain in New York out of fear that Billi will expose the lie, Billi flies to Changchun, China by herself. Throughout the film, Billi is conflicted between telling her grandmother the truth about her sickness or taking away her emotional burden by lying to her face.
As a Chinese-American who grew up in the States, The Farewell struck a deep chord. The heavy emphasis that Chinese culture places on family and especially the elderly, is admirable. In America, the elderly are usually placed in retirement homes and largely become defined by their old age or disabilities. In China, it is quite the opposite. The elderly are celebrated and treated as an elite class in society, as their wisdom and sacrifice are looked highly upon. They often exude more energy than young people. If you’re not familiar with this culture, you might be wondering why Billi’s entire family bothered to put themselves in the moral dilemma of lying to the matriarch of the family. If you grew up in Chinese culture, you might empathize more with Billi’s family, and if you are in between American and Chinese culture like myself, you will see yourself in Billi.
However, Billi’s dilemma isn’t just about Nai Nai, but also about herself. By withholding Nai Nai’s diagnosis, Billi finds it nearly impossible to not only grieve over Nai Nai’s impending death, but also to fully appreciate the remaining time she has with her. Although Nai Nai can be blunt, she exudes the warmest presence around Billi, as Nai Nai seems to be the only person in Billi’s family who sees her as a dazzling woman with a bright future, constantly encouraging and supporting her. As an aspiring, but struggling writer in New York, Billi usually doesn’t even see this within herself. When Billi tells Nai Nai that she got rejected from the Guggenheim Fellowship, Nai Nai says, without a blink of an eye, “You’ll be fine child. [...] Your mind is very powerful. You will succeed.”
The film shines in its unspoken moments that highlight the push and pull of Asian American identity. Even the composition of the film reflects this, as it switches between Mandarin and English dialogue. Billi’s Mandarin, although much better than mine, still does not sound completely fluid, and mirrors the tonality of many (but not all) Chinese-Americans. In one particular scene, Billi’s family is crowded around her grandma’s table, sharing home-cooked Chinese food like one does on familial visits to China. The conversation bounces between praise, catching up with each other, health-related matters, and staunch criticism. The grandchildren’s Mandarin speaking skills are brought up, which happens without fail every time I’m at a family friend's dinner in China as well.
While watching The Farewell, I contemplated what I would do in Billi's situation, as I’m sure many audience members did. I think that the film’s thesis hinges on the belief that when difficult choices are made out of pure love, there will almost never be a clear answer that leads to a clear conscience. Billi’s position at the intersection of a collectivist and individualistic society allows her to see both sides of the dilemma, highlighting the power of coming from a diverse cultural background. In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang expertly creates a non-divisive and enthralling film that both celebrates Chinese culture and showcases the duality of being caught in between two upbringings.