It’s hard to describe The Farewell because its not just about one thing. It’s a story about complicated decisions and the differences between cultures, and uses the format of a family reunion drama to say a lot of interesting things about responsibility to one’s family. As is evident by the film’s closing moments, this is a story that is rooted in a real experience by writer/director Lulu Wang, and as a depiction of a family in crisis, this feels like a complete portrait; we leave the film understanding the perspective of everyone in the family, and we understand both why they have affection for each other, and why their family gatherings are so rare.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a struggling writer who was born in China but has lived in New York with her family since she was six. After visiting her parents, Billi learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of a tumor, and that the family is reuniting in China to see her. The catch is that Nai Nai doesn’t know she’s dying, and the family isn’t telling her; they arrange for Billi’s cousin to get married so that the family has a chance to gather to see their matriarch one last time.
The big question the film poses is right there: is it our duty to tell someone their fate, or is it best to let them remain ignorant? We see both sides of the equation; Nai Nai takes joy in planning her grandson’s wedding and reconnecting with her family, but underneath all of this is a facade, and the lengths in which the family goes to deceive her can be extreme. It’s also a matter of culture; as is beautifully explained by Billi’s uncle (played by Jiang Yongbo), the way in which the East and West view family and individual choice is different, and the idea of the family carrying a burden instead of an individual is a valued perspective to hear.
I think seeing the perspectives of each member of the family is what makes the film so interesting. While each of the family members is there to accommodate Nai Nai, their relationship with her varies. In particular, the shaky relationship between Billi’s parents, Haiyan (Tzi Man) and Jian (Diana Lin) is explored; Jian has always fought for the respect of her mother in law and is bothered by her controlling nature, and Haiyan’s regard for the Chinese tradition has been shaken by his time in America raising Billi. The film mostly centers on Billi’s relationship with her grandmother, but throughout the film a deeper family is hinted at, and there’s no better way to understand how people interact than amidst a tragedy.
Awkwafina is terrific as Billi, who despite feeling like an outsider in her family, both due to her lack of success as a writer and her lack of knowledge of the traditional culture, shares a special relationship with her grandmother. Billi’s discomfort with the lie is understandable, and her perspective not only comes as someone disillusioned with the culture, but due to her love of her grandmother, who is played excellently by Zhao Shuzhen. Shuzhen’s performance is warm, bubbly, and throughout the film she’s able to make the best of each situation and bring optimism to a family that is often at odds with each other. Of course, we don’t know how her optimism would fare if she had knowledge of the truth, and it some points we’re kept guessing as to how much she may know.
While the majority of the attention is centered on the performances and familial dynamics, this is also a very well directed film. Lulu Wang shows us the detail of these traditions, as well as the meticulous actions taken by the family to get together and become adjusted to living together, resulting in a film that feels very lived in and inviting. Take for example a dinner scene in the middle of the film (which is brilliantly staged around a rotating tray of food); its a dialogue scene in which the family discusses the pros and cons of America and China, and while the tray navigates to each family member as they speak, we have an acute awareness of how everyone else is feeling, what they find funny, and what they’re uncomfortable with.
It’s also worth noting how funny the film is; the reunion of these family members under circumstances that require deception can make for a lot of humorous moments, particularly considering that this supposed wedding was conceived as the reason to get them all together. The humor makes the film feel more authentic, but it also is what makes it uplifting; regardless of what Nai Nai does or doesn’t know, she has a profound impact on everyone’s lives, and we see a reflection of that legacy for what may be the last time. Grade: A