The Farewell (2019), based on a real lie, was written by Lulu Wang about very real events of her life. When Wang found out that her Nai Nai was diagnosed with cancer, her family decided that it would be best to keep it a secret from their matriarch.
Lulu refused to compromise the soul of this story that was so close to her heart, home, and culture. She kept the story as close to home as possible; she portrayed the genuine feelings and complications her and her family struggled with, she filmed the movie in her old neighborhood, and she even got her own great-aunt to play Billi's great-aunt in the film.
Billi (Nora Lum "Awkwafina") is a Chinese-born, American-raised woman who lives in NYC as she tries to find her future and success in passion and writing. She moved to America at a very young age with her parents. When she finds out her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in China, has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, she goes through a string of emotions that revolve around confusion, loss, and obligation.
This film opens with small white lies that immediately show the family dynamic of Billi and her parents (played by Tzi M and Diana Lin), but it also relates to many of us. The subtle omissions from our parents to keep them from worrying are just the baseline in many parent-children relationships. Then, as the rest of the film unfolds, the lies grow into a force that rules their lives.
As each character, old and young, deals with the news and secret in their own way, there are clear generational and cultural differences portrayed in this film between every family member. Billi's family who lives in China fully understand the cultural duty of carrying the burden of the cancer diagnosis for Nai Nai rather than telling her. They view it as a way of saving her from her own fear and sadness. Her mother and father struggle with torn point of views, one of their home heritage and one from the new, western ideals they've accustomed to. Billi's father especially struggles with the notion of keeping this secret from his own mother, as he knows this sort of thing is illegal in America, but he also understands his family's reasoning for not telling her. Billi, however, must slowly come to her own terms with understanding the point of view of the others in her family, but she remains stagnant on the notion that they are robbing Nai Nai from the simple freedom of having the information and choosing what she wants to do with it.
Are cultural ideals and ways of living slowly watered down through each generation, especially for those that move from their native homes to western countries and raise children in these foreign lands?
It's a major point and question being posed in this film. More than the lie, there is a larger idea being positioned about the benefits and downfalls of moving to western countries for better opportunities. As much as one tries to hold on to their identity and heritage, is some of it lost the moment you leave home? Can you hold on to those ideals through each new generation, or are societal influences too heavy to keep at bay? And what kind of mark does that leave on children who grow up in both environments?
Billi understands why her parents moved to America, and in many ways she is grateful, but she also has a strong feeling of loss because she missed out on a childhood near her family. The thought of all of her lost time with her family, and the thought of her Nai Nai growing up without her family near her was a 10-ton burden that became near impossible to carry.
This film gracefully lands on multiple topics surrounding identity and culture. The dialogue and the amazing acting from the cast pulls you into the lie and into the topsy-turvy dynamic of the family. The films dialogue never feels like insulting banter, and as they traverse topics of different cultures and opposing ideas, it shows the true grace of Wang as a person and a writer, as she is able to initiate and follow through with important conversations, full of substance but never trailing on exploitative nor rude. My favorite part of this film was Nai Nai herself. She was full of life and love. She reminded me of the kind of grandmother that everyone deserves to grow up with. I felt sad for Nai Nai, but Wang only allowed me to be a little bit, because the rest of the time, you can't help but enjoy the genuine shining spirit of this character.
Jacindable Rating: ★★★★
Starring, Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Zhao Shuzhen, Diana Lin, Aoi Mizuhara, Yongbo Jiang, and Han Chen
Written and Directed by, Lulu Wang