If you see a “smaller” movie this summer, make sure to prioritize The Farewell, starring Awkwafina as Chinese-American immigrant Billi, who travels back to China to see her grandmother Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) one last time before she passes. The truth is that Nai-Nai has cancer, but her family has no intention of telling her or anyone outside the family the diagnosis (this is legal and is implied to be somewhat common in China). It sounds messed up, and it kind of is, except it’s also actually a comedy, and feels real.
It is in fact, real. Director and writer Lulu Wang used a real life family lie as the basis for this film. In using her own story and perspective, she is able to build an entire world that is foreign to most non-Chinese people, and yet also familiar. It’s incredible to watch as an outsider, so I can only imagine how much more I may have missed. The approach to remnants of the past, the traditions that live on, and the probability of Billi cracking under the pressure are nuanced, and very well executed. There’s humor in smaller things that are built in the background as a visual gag without additional commentary, partially because life continues on, even if it seems like it’s the end.
As their matriarch gets worse, Billi’s entire family embraces what technically would be the grandmother’s last wish: to see Billi’s cousin, who was raised in Japan and speaks little Chinese, get married to his Japanese girlfriend of three months. She’s a good sport about it, but Billi dodged a bullet by being single. This lie becomes the excuse the family can use to gather together for the first time in a while. Nai-Nai planned the entire wedding, from the banquet to the pre-ceremony wedding photographs. Even though the bride is not actually marrying Billi’s cousin, the family plays along, and the bride becomes increasingly confused by the language barrier and differences in customs.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this comes during a scene set at the gravesite of Billi’s grandfather and they engage in prayer and traditional rituals. This includes bowing three times per person the grandmother requests blessings for and gifts of things the deceased enjoyed: cigarettes, food, and papers printed with the iconic iPhone screen branding. As they bow to the grave over and over as Nai-Nai thinks of new things to say, we watch as the bride’s face comes into focus, so that the viewer’s eye is drawn to watching her reactions. From there on, it was hard to not check her expressions.
Even though things are very different in China culturally, the similarities of my own experiences are enough: where the family is the community first, and is responsible for carrying the “burden” of emotions, and things left unsaid.
Not that Nai-Nai or Billi keep most things unsaid — the two of them are both sharly-witted — but they do have different perspectives on the way that things are done. Nai-Nai is aware of the odd behavior of her family members on this visit, but she withholds questions and opts to roast everyone at the dinner table instead. It is effortless. Rock on, Nai-Nai.
On the other hand, Billi is known for wearing her emotions openly. Her parents do not want her to tell her grandmother so they tell her to stay at home, in New York, where she is very broke. Obviously that is not what happened, and Billi is evasive of how she could afford to fly out, with the response, “I swam.”
The Farewell has some dramatic moments, and Awkwafina nails each of them, but the best performance comes from Shuzhen. It’s easy to fall in love with such a character, and the emotional bond between the two characters are what elevates the story even further. It’s as though the actresses have known each other their whole lives. It makes me eager to see it again.