Director Lulu Wang’s second feature film, The Farewell, paints a heart-warming yet melancholic portrait of a family grappling with Eastern ideologies versus Western convictions, and coming to terms with the passage of time and what it means to be bound by blood. Wang originally told the story on the popular radio program This American Life. The adapted film, “based on an actual lie,” centers around Billi (Awkwafina) and her family as they shield their matriarch from the despair of a fatal diagnosis.
Billi is a wandering 20-something New Yorker who lacks direction and a clear path for her life. After immigrating to the states, Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma) worked hard to give Billi a better life, and they won’t let her forget it. In between visits to her parent’s house for dinner and scrounging up enough money for rent and loads of laundry, she continues to face the expectation that she must make something of her life in order to justify her parents’ sacrifices.
Billi is shown chatting long-distance with her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), who resides in China and doesn’t speak a lick of English. Their relationship is full of love; their phone conversations are warm and breezy, a welcome breath of ease compared to the stress and impatience of Billi’s parents and New York life in general. “Nai Nai” (Mandarin for grandmother) and Billi are close, despite being on opposite sides of the world.
Billi’s father reveals that Nai Nai has received a grave diagnosis of advanced lung cancer and the family has told everyone—except Nai Nai herself. Billi’s parents and extended family justify this choice with the belief that if she’s told, it’s not cancer that will be Nai Nai’s end, but the grim mentality that often accompanies a terminal diagnosis.
The entire family travels to China to attend a shotgun wedding, an excuse for everyone to see Nai Nai one last time. Inevitably, Billi struggles with hiding the truth from her beloved grandmother, frequently asking other family members if they’re doing the right thing. Billi’s father even begins to question the morality of keeping Nai Nai’s fate from herself.
A quote from Billi’s uncle, one of the loudest voices for keeping Nai Nai’s diagnosis hidden, highlights the difference between the Eastern customs practiced by the majority of the relatives and the Western standards Billi has come to embrace. He tells Billi, “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is a part of a whole. Family.” Though many of us in the U.S. would see the lie as inexcusably unethical, this insight offers perspective into a cultural mentality that values the group over the individual.
The Farewell is a huge turning point for Awkwafina, a performer known for her comedy and outrageousness. She reveals a side of herself that is not only poignant and vulnerable, but also wholly authentic, showcasing her capacity to pull off a real tour de force.
Wang’s film has generated major buzz, resting at a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s even been some Oscar chatter, with critics predicting that The Farewell has great potential to be a Best Picture contender, as well as Awkwafina for Best Actress.
The Farewell is also another major step toward more equal representation in film. Featuring an entirely Asian cast, the movie has generated excitement similar to that which accompanied last year’s summer hit, Crazy Rich Asians.
Now playing in cities across the country, The Farewell is a culturally specific story that manages to be relatable for all audiences. This poignant portrait of a family is sure to tug at the heartstrings while being utterly delightful at the same time.