In the broadest strokes, the conflict at the center of The Farewell is familiar: If you could spare someone significant pain at the cost of hiding the truth, would you still tell them, or would you shoulder that emotional burden yourself?
What’s remarkable about Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical film is how much she’s managed to build around that question. The Farewell is dense, dealing with that central lie in the context of the first-generation immigrant experience (which can easily be named but not so easily defined), but it never feels heavy despite how much it’s taking on. Wang affords that question as well as the effects of China’s growth, the perpetual push and pull between East and West, and how difficult it can sometimes be to express love with equal weight, weaving a tapestry that tackles issues that are more often than not left unspoken. It’s an astonishing feat, and indisputably cements The Farewell as one of the best films of the year, a drama that’s as funny as it is touching, and a major work from both Wang and leading lady Awkwafina.
In her first dramatic leading role, the Ocean’s 8 actress plays Billi, a Chinese-American woman who returns to China when her Nai Nai (“grandmother” in Chinese, played by Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The catch is that Nai Nai doesn’t know — the family has chosen to keep the diagnosis a secret so as to spare Nai Nai the worry. Instead, as a sort of farewell (hence the film’s title), the family is using the pretext of Billi’s cousin’s wedding to get the family together.
Initially, Billi isn’t invited along, as the family fears she’ll get too emotional and make it clear to Nai Nai that something’s afoot, not to mention the fact that she doesn’t understand how everyone could agree to be complicit in such a huge lie. But Billi buys a plane ticket anyway — and once in China, finds the question of whether they’re doing the right thing much harder to see in such black-and-white terms.
Billi’s bafflement at the decision stems from the years she’s spent in America, where such a lie is unthinkable. In China, it’s common practice to keep such news a secret, not as an act of malice but as part of the notion of filial piety (one’s respect and responsibility for one’s elders), and the less Western idea of one’s life being part of a whole rather than belonging solely to oneself. The way the family sees it, they are shouldering Nai Nai’s burden for her.
Wang tackles culture clash without presenting one or the other as inherently wrong or inherently right, or otherwise exotic. In part, that’s how it always should be (that something is foreign should not mean it’s fodder to be made fun of), and in part, it’s because they’re not mutually exclusive entities. Billi is the living proof — she’s forever stuck between two worlds, not American enough for one and not Chinese enough for the other.
The lie aside, much of what happens in The Farewell is likely to feel painfully familiar to any first-generation members of the audience. Billi’s frustration with her mother Jian’s (Diana Lin) stoicism, her parents’ unspoken hardships with emigrating from China to America, her father Haiyan’s (Tzi Ma) and her uncle Haibin’s (Jiang Yongbo) guilt over living abroad, apart from their mother; they’re experiences that feel both universal and intensely specific (both terms that are admittedly tossed around too often in discussion of stories that aren’t, let’s face it, about white people, as a means of saying “there’s something for you here, too!”).
They’re universal in that they’re the kinds of things that first-generation immigrants (or their children) will talk about to other first-gens in implicit terms or in passing jokes, acknowledged as shared experiences but never really expressed clearly for the same reason that the family decides to hide Nai Nai’s diagnosis. They’re specific in that, because of those exact rules (and for the needless fear that such non-Western stories would be inaccessible to other audiences), they’re never really conversations that are put on-screen, and they feel alarmingly new for being so explicitly portrayed.
The Farewell feels even more like a gift for remaining firmly grounded in reality rather than throwing in any melodramatics or twists that would arguably make the film more “Hollywood.” There’s no huge third-act bombshell (à la, say, Crazy Rich Asians, which ends up feeling a little more outsized as a result) and no firm conclusion — less because they’re not wanted but because they’re not necessary. Such love is built up over years, over a lifetime’s worth of moments, not a single grand gesture.
The cast (all of whom are, significantly, of the heritage of the characters they portray, as opposed to the usual casting of East Asians as a monolith, and include the wonderful Hong Lu, the actual Little Nai Nai, as herself) is uniformly extraordinary, as is the widescreen cinematography (by Anna Franquesa Solano) and Alex Weston’s whimsical score. Wang’s steady hand guides it all, capturing the little moments — Little Nai Nai sitting on her own, clearly bearing the burden of having effectively made the decision for the family as the only one present at the time of the diagnosis, or Billi gamely following along with Nai Nai’s tai chi — that, while not imperative to the story, add to its richness.
The conversations that Billi has with her mother about what first-generation children often take for granted but parents have struggled with are conversations I’ve had with my own mother. The idea of what is owed to the people around you versus what you owe to yourself is one that’s a constant, whether I’m consciously thinking about it or not, in my day-to-day life. Neither of them are things I’ve talked about with other people — once again, less for fear of being misunderstood but because they’ve always seemed, to me, like private affairs.
I don’t feel — and the point of The Farewell is not — that that’s necessarily untrue, now, but it feels significant to have these ideas explored so well and in such a forthcoming way. I’ve never expressed to anyone exactly why, whenever my family would visit and then take leave of our relatives in South Korea, I would to look back out the window of the car to watch my grandmother waving goodbye until I could no longer see her, or that I developed the habit at all. Each time, I knew that it would be at least a year until I would see her again, another year in which both of us would get a little older. It always felt like I should take that last look, just to have a little more time with her, or at least have a last image of her in my mind, in case that time would be the last. And then, one day, it was.
Few scenes have hit me as hard as Billi doing the same thing, turning around in a departing car to watch Nai Nai wave goodbye until she’s no longer in view. It’s a hyper-specific moment and memory, but representative, to me, of just how special The Farewell is. It’s the kind of movie that, while modest in make, feels like it will be a major milestone in cinema in the years to come.
The Farewell is now in limited release.