In an interview with /Film, Lulu Wang, The Farewell’s writer and director, reinforced the distinction between being Chinese and Chinese American. “When you’re an immigrant, you fall somewhere on a spectrum, and so you’re constantly negotiating between different cultures,” she says. And this is exactly the subtext that lies within the intricate folds of the The Farewell. Blanketed by sadness that both comforts and creates waves of internal turmoil, Wang’s film is a masterclass in storytelling and in understanding the immigrant experience, the complicated dynamics of family, and the loneliness that stems from keeping secrets, even if it’s for one’s own good.
Based on Wang’s life and on “actual lies,” The Farewell follows Billi (Awkwafina in a game-changing role), a struggling artist who’s just found out her grandmother–Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou)–has stage four cancer and only has a few months left to live. With no immediate family in New York City besides her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), and behind on rent, Billi still flies to China to see her Nai Nai even though her parents don’t think it’s a good idea. See, Billi is very close to her grandmother and the family has decided to lie about her diagnosis and don’t trust Billi to keep her composure without exposing the truth. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Billi must navigate the fine line of sharing the burden with her grandmother or keeping it to herself.
As someone who falls “somewhere on the spectrum” of two cultures, The Farewell is a film that spoke to me on a deeper level. Its meaningful exploration of Billi’s love for her Nai Nai, who’s seemingly the last authentic and emotional connection she also has to China, is punctuated by the ongoing need to tell her the truth and in the understanding of why she can’t. Billi navigates her American and Chinese sides with confusion, lost in the sea of ideologies that quickly shift between one culture and the next. She’s understanding in the same way immigrant children are of their parents’ hold on traditional customs, but isolated in her own struggle of what’s right and wrong. Because, at the end of the day, there is no one right or wrong way to go about the situation. The storyline is exemplary in capturing the ideas and reasons for Billi’s feelings and her family’s staunch need to hide the truth from Nai Nai and choosing to carry that emotional burden for her. Family can be your greatest strength, but they can also be the cause of incredible pain, and the distance between Billi and her parents versus the closeness she shares with her grandmother is indicative of that.
The film is strengthened by Awkwafina’s nuanced and devastatingly heartfelt performance. Billi is tethered to her Chinese heritage and sense of belonging through her grandmother, but she still feels like an outsider on occasion, especially with the repetitive criticism of not speaking very good Chinese (though she’s still able to speak it, it’s still never good enough for her family), but manages to maintain her fortitude in the face of such internal conflict. From her reactions to thr hard-to-face situation she’s in to the unfiltered love that pours from her eyes while interacting with her grandmother, Awkwafina delivers in every way. The supporting cast also does a fantastic job in buttressing the family dynamics throughout the film. There’s never an instance when this onscreen family doesn’t act like a real one and their moments together are authentic and heartbreaking, with the somber moments broken only by Nai Nai’s uproarious rapture.
Wang creates moments that are incredibly poignant and captures Billi’s interiority so intimately, making it easy to get into her headspace. The examination of family is multi-dimensional, from the distance between Billi and her parents to the loneliness of being “other” in a country that fights for you to be one or the other, and the unexpected closeness that stems from the simple fact of wanting to keep loved ones from worrying. The Farewell makes the distinction between cultures without infringing on either and allows the audience to live in the divide of the conflict with the utmost of empathy. The Farewell is a gift, a stunning, emotional, and nuanced piece of storytelling that will indeed make you want to call your grandmother afterward.