'The Farewell' explores how to say goodbye
By Wendy Knowlton
September 9 2019
Billi (Awkwafina) feels adrift in the world. When she was six, her family left China for the USA. Years later she has been rejected by the Guggenheim Fellowship, can’t pay the rent and makes her way through New York, isolated in a crowd. One anchor point in her life is her beloved Grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), so when she hears this family matriarch has only months to live, Billi is devastated. And then she learns that Nai Nai isn’t to be told.
The film explores this practice, embedded in Chinese culture and based on “an actual lie” experienced by writer and director, Lulu Wang. The hastily-arranged wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao and his Japanese bride, Aiko, serves as an excuse for the extended family to gather in Changchun to secretly farewell Nai Nai, and also provides the opportunity for family tensions and cultural clashes to emerge in the fraught atmosphere of barely concealed grief.
This is a beautifully made film, where the sadness is not only for Nai Nai, but also for the impact of emigration. As the family gather around tables laden with food and all reach for communal dishes, this serves as a visual contrast to their separation. Living in the US or Japan, bickering about the rival opportunities there or in China, this is a family still bound, but struggling to connect. Billi’s inability to accept the decision to keep Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her is part of this fragmentation. Billi hadn’t been told when her grandfather was dying, and when she next visited China, it felt as if he’d just disappeared – that there was a space where he used to be. It’s the same with the house she was brought up in – now demolished for new developments. Everything seems to just slip away. She fights her urge to tell Nai Nai everything, in part, because she wants to go through this with her – to make it real. Her Westernised sensibility clashes with the family’s visit to the cemetery with offerings for Nai Nai’s husband – his favourite food, even cigarettes are consumed for him – still very much a presence in their lives. Billi finds it difficult to embrace the belief that a life doesn’t just belong to one person, but to the family group. The family are holding this burden for Nai Nai, as she did for her dying husband. They will tell her when it’s time, but for as long as they can, they will carry her fear for her.
All performances are strong – particularly the warm and feisty portrayal of Nai Nai by Zhao Shuzhen, but also Awkwafina’s conflicted Billi, and Diana Lin as her tightly wound mother. We become immersed in this family, their struggles and strength. Billi is torn, wanting to stay in China for her grandmother and herself, but back in New York she stops dead in the street and shouts her defiance to the world. That, and an unexpected ending, allows the film to finish with a smile.