‘That’s the difference between the East and the West… In the East, a person’s life is a part of a whole: Family’
These are the words faced by Awkwafina’s character, Billi, when she questions familial and cultural norms and traditions. An account of Lulu Wang’s own life, The Farewell examines the complexities surrounding one’s attempts at balancing two entirely different worlds. Opposites in their expression of love, Wang straddles the famed dichotomy between the ‘east’ and the ‘west’ in such a tender and loving way, with an evident authentic understanding of the immigrant experience.
‘Based on an actual lie,’ the story of The Farewell was first told in the NPR podcast, This American Life, in 2016. The film chronicles an elaborate lie in the name of providing its terminally-ill matriarch with a ‘farewell’ rid of grief, twisting the reality of her prognosis. In her sophomore feature, Wang takes the comedic tale of life and death back to its homeland. Billi, played by rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina, is a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant who first moved to America at age six. Like many immigrant kids, Billi closes the vast geographical distance with her loved ones through frequent phone calls. It is in one of these calls wherein Billi’s touching relationship with her Nai Nai (the Mandarin term for Grandmother) is introduced.
Despite being thousands of miles apart Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) continues asking Billi the quintessential grandmother questions like whether she’s eaten or if she’s wearing warm enough clothes, clearly up to date with all the happenings in her twenty-something granddaughter’s life. Awkwafina and Shuzhen seamlessly embody their wholesome relationship. This is why, despite the lie being no secret to the viewer, the reveal of Nai Nai’s terminal illness still pulls at the heartstrings.
Due to Billi’s deep-rooted attachment to her grandmother, her parents inhibit her from flying with them back to China — fearing she will be unable to keep up the well-intentioned lie. As Billi’s mother Jian proclaims, “it’s not the cancer that kills you, it’s the fear.” Wang crafts the story with profound love and care; the script does not bare the alienation that usually permeates films that explore unfamiliar cultural traditions and beliefs. Instead, we are left tinkering at the ethical question, if it meant that my loved one would have the best last moments of their lives, would I have done the same?
Despite her parents’ wishes, Billi fumbles her way back to Changchun, burdened by the news about Nai Nai. There is an undeniable feeling of nostalgia that anchors each shot of the city. The Farewell captures an experience ever so familiar to first-generation immigrants— coming back to your home country and feeling alienated in your own home. Usually, this feeling isn’t one rooted from changes in surroundings or welcoming new members of the family; sometimes it’s the lack thereof. Although members of the family have been apart for more than two decades, Billi is welcomed back to the family matriarch’s home with everyone immediately snapping back into their roles. Her mother is already helping cook dinner, and Nai Nai instantly jumps at her with the usual comments concerning one’s weight. Despite leaving at such a young age, nothing has changed besides Billi herself — leaving her to face comments about being ‘too American’.
To justify the entire family going back to China, Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao, is made to marry his Japanese girlfriend Aiko, despite only dating for a few months. The round dining table, as with many Asian households, is the instrument that binds the big family together. While devouring mouth-watering delicacies, the family forms another face-saving lie, this time involving Nai Nai. To avoid pregnancy gossip, the to-be-married couple is instructed to proclaim that they have been dating for a year rather than a few months.
The lie used to sheath Nai Nai’s terminal condition seemingly goes unnoticed, but there is an undeniable feeling that deep inside, the elder woman knows. As Little Nai Nai (Nai Nai’s younger sister) proclaims, people always know when it is their time. After all, Nai Nai herself used the same lie until her husband’s very last moments.
What makes Wang’s writing so effective is that it does not dwell on sorrow and grief. Instead, it hones down on the real. The authenticity behind the cultural specificity in the film is palpable, very much due to the writer-director’s firsthand experience of the situation. But despite the film’s specificity, Wang transforms the diaspora into a universal family tale; the complexity of love in the modern age against miles of difference. Wang’s ability to balance sadness and nostalgia with equally tender comical moments highlights her talent as a writer and director. Instead of obvious cinematic influences, it is the notion of love and affection that beams from the screen, allowing Wang to create a timeless piece of cinema that will inevitably be a modern classic.
Navigating between grief and acceptance in an environment forcing you to repress such emotions is perfectly encapsulated by Awkwafina’s performance; the unbearable lonesome feeling despite being surrounded by your family due to growing differences in upbringing and beliefs. This bottling of emotions breaks during the preparations for the wedding. Billi finally expresses her dismay of the situation to her mother who, as the resilient matriarch of their immediate family, has been vocal in her dismay at Billi’s inability to go along with the lie. In this poignant moment, Awkwafina offers an awards-worthy heartbreaking performance that truly flexes her acting abilities. After being introduced to the masses with last year’s Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, she is finally allowed to be more than just the sidekick jester; powerfully communicating an avalanche of raging emotions through the most subtle of gestures.
While seemingly the very basis of cinema, Hollywood still has a particular issue with shining a spotlight on stories which tread on unconventionality. With the multiple teary-eyed audience members in screenings for The Farewell, and the film receiving Sundance London’s Audience Award, maybe Hollywood will finally realise that stories such as Wang’s are worthy of being marketed towards the mainstream.
Cinema, for many immigrants like me, has always been a game of pretend, not just in its creation, but in its consumption. Due to the lack of films highlighting experiences authentic to our own, we are left to mirror ourselves to stories which don’t foreground our truth; eagerly scavenging for any point of resemblance with our personal experiences. While, of course, this universal appreciation is what filmmakers aspire for, there is something so monumental about an immigrant woman being able to share her tender, love letter to her family to the world. Lulu Wang’s unapologetic embrace of her culture and upbringing will no doubt inspire many aspiring filmmakers to also believe in the power of their stories. The Farewell, both in its narrative and wider impact, doesn’t infer an end, but a hopeful invitation to greater things ahead.
For the rest of our Sundance London coverage, click here.