Beautifully observed and bittersweet drama about the conflict between family ties and cultural values, with an impressive dramatic turn from Awkwafina.
If I didn’t know that Awkwafina was in The Farewell I probably wouldn’t have recognised her, since her role here is a million miles away from her high-energy, eccentric comedic performance in Crazy Rich Asians. Here she plays Billi, a Chinese American who moved with her parents to New York when she was six, and still maintains a strong relationship with her beloved grandmother back in China. The opening scene is a deft demonstration of this immigrant duality, where Billi is talking on the phone to her Nai Nai while walking through the streets. One minute she’s a respectful Chinese granddaughter, then she instantly switches back to her more exuberant American self when talking to a charity worker.
This peaceful co-existence of two identities is tested when Billi receives devastating news from her parents. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, with only a few months left to live, and the family have made a decision to keep this information from her – a common decision in Chinese families, since there’s a belief that bad news will kill a person with cancer faster than the cancer itself.
In order to pay Nai Nai their last respects, a hasty wedding has been arranged for Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend of three months, but the family is not especially keen on Billi joining the reunion, believing her to be too Americanised to keep her emotions in check. Billi, who thinks that Nai Nai has a right to know and confront her fate, rustles up enough money for a trip to Changchun and comes anyway. Will she or someone else in the family break from the pressure of having to keep up a pretense while they’re grieving on the inside?
It’s a powerful set-up, based on the writer-director Lulu Wang‘s personal experience, as I found out later. In different hands it could have turned overly melodramatic, but Wang portrays this poignant scenario with an exceptionally light touch, and with a good dose of humour amid the melancholy. The family-focused vignettes manage to find comedy in serious matters, such as visiting the grave of Billi’s grandfather to offer prayers and offerings (“Don’t give him cigarettes — he quit!”). She also has an eye for playful and eye-catching visual compositions, putting characters against the murals of nature and bright solid colours. All members of Billi’s extended family, even ones with the minimal onscreen presence, are sharply drawn, and it’s easy to see why Nai Nai is so loved by her granddaughter: she’s a warm and dignified presence, like a benevolent queen (though with enough hint of an acid tongue and bossiness to make one recall a famous quote about happiness meaning a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city).
We all tell little white lies in order to make others feel better, but is it ever ok to keep a secret of this magnitude from people? As Billi says, in the USA this sort of deception, in which doctors participate along with the families, would have been illegal. Billi’s Chinese family however counter that it’s her self-centred Western individualism speaking, yearning to relieve herself of the burden and tell the truth, when her and everyone else’s duty is to carry that burden for Nai Nai. It’s hard not to feel that the film’s epilogue emphatically tilts the balance in favour of one of these positions; I personally would have preferred that it didn’t do so and had more faith in viewers making up their own minds. Still, The Farewell is a warm and lovely watch, I’m glad I had a chance to catch up with it on Netflix.