The Farewell is more or less an autobiography, despite its seemingly melodramatic premise. It’s also one of 2019’s best and most heartwrenching films. Opening with the title card “Based on an actual lie,” the film borrows heavily from director Lulu Wang’s personal life, whose own grandmother was diagnosed with a serious terminal condition. Spoilers- Wang’s Nai Nai survived, but it was her family’s refusal to disclose the condition that stood out. She couldn’t understand why they would shelter Nai Nai from knowledge of her death, even if the intent was to keep her final days happy. Could such a decision be considered moral or ethical, even if done out love?
In this sense, protagonist Billi (played by Awkwafina), is an avatar for Wang’s conflicted emotions. A Chinese-American aspiring artist who immigrated to the states with her parents Haiyan and Jian (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) as a kid, Billi faces standard early adulthood problems. Her application for a Guggenheim fellowship in the Arts wasn’t accepted, she’s struggling to pay rent and her Mandarin isn’t quite as fluent as it used to be. Like most immigrant-themed generational movies, Billi has connections to China and misses her family there, but her morals align closer to American ideology.
Then Billi’s parents drop the ball about her Nai Nai, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and only has a few months to live. But they won’t tell her the truth. Unlike in America, Chinese families are legally permitted to withhold a diagnosis from the recipient for as long as possible, believing the victim’s illness to be less problematic than how he or she will fear their final moments. Instead, her parents are returning to Changchun under the guise of a wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko. Billi is originally dissuaded from visiting in fear that she won’t be able to keep the secret, but does so anyway. Not just because Nai Nai is family, but she symbolizes the last remnant of Billi’s old life in China, a heritage she’s struggling to preserve.
Family is central to The Farewell’s narrative, transcending geographical boundaries and cultural customs despite each member’s residence. Much like last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, which also starred Awkwafina, it features a predominantly Asian and Asian-American cast but never relegates them to stereotypes. These relationships feels authentic and nuanced, full of subtle references and gestures that indicate decades of history between family members.
I was especially struck by the dinner conversation scenes, which see Billi and her family struggle to keep small talk going as Nai Nai delightfully, and obliviously, interrogates them about their lives. Themes and emotions are passed along as easily as the food, a connective universal cultural item amongst family gatherings, mine included. You can see the uncomfortableness in everyone’s eyes as they keep up poker faces and smiles to withhold the worst possible secret imaginable. Yet the way they talk and laugh and bounce off one another- it feels like a family rather than actors.
These conversations and interactions also contribute to the film’s theme of generational identity. To make a similar Crazy Rich Asians comparison, Billi is a Western immigrant dealing with a morality question justified by Eastern beliefs. This is felt not only by her struggle to communicate verbally with relatives, but understanding why they would commit to this lie at all. “It’s a good lie,” they tell her, citing differences between American happiness as a devotion to self-identity and a Chinese family’s willingness to put the collective above all else. Telling Nai Nai the truth might make Billi feel good in the short term, but it detracts from the burden everyone accepted to make this goodbye a pleasant experience.
As Billi, Awkwafina makes her first foray into the realm of dramatic acting and it’s breathtaking. There are still traces of the quippy persona seen in Crazy and Ocean’s 8, but it’s subdued and juxtaposed with moments of intensity as she struggles to uphold a happy façade. This woman loves her grandmother as much as any grandchild would and is aghast at keeping her in the dark. The camera accommodates this sense of isolation, placing emphasis on various wide shots that pull back from a single character or family interaction to emphasize their grief. These moments highlight the power of cinema- conveying emotion through the simplest of visual shots.
These interactions play out as solemn dark comedy, aided in part by the levity of Chinese TV actress Zhao Shuzhen in her first film role as Nai Nai. Oblivious to her fate, Shuzhen is a ball of energy despite her age and medical condition, a household matriarch whose presence unites everyone together. She practices tai chi outdoors, insists on having a say in all the wedding preparations, and actively cooks all the meals. This is a woman who has lived a full life and, even if she did learn the truth, wouldn’t sweat it because she’s thankful for having the family together for the first time in decades. In other words, she’s what everyone wants their grandmother to be.
I was genuinely touched by The Farewell, particularly because it reminded me of my own Nana, who passed away last year. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s for almost a decade but we never told her about the condition, partially because she would eventually forget it and also because we wanted to make sure her final memories were of us being together. It’s heartbreaking to carry that burden, and The Farewell captures that dilemma too well. Truth is important for a family’s survival, but so is happiness. The fact that there’s no “liar revealed” moment- the film wholly commits to its big secret rather than frame it for laughs- is its most impressive subversion of cinematic tropes.
Grade: 5 out of 5 Stars
The Farewell is profoundly deep for an indie drama, which just shows that you don’t need big budget spectacle to make a film engaging. It establishes a difficult situation and forces the characters to grapple with it in the best way possible, despite the solution not being clear-cut. With Awkwafina’s standout dramatic role and a poignant, yet tragically touching story of family and immigrant identity, this film deserves more recognition than it’ll likely get. As her second film release, I’d say Lulu Wang is a director worth looking out for in the near future.