There’s a scene early on in The Farewell, where Billi (Awkwafina) finds a bird trapped in her apartment. The symbolism isn’t lost, as Billi herself seems isolated from her true home. The film, written and directed by Lulu Wang, is based on a true story and goes to great lengths to showcase how the complications of everyday life mixed with personal desires can stretch the limits of familial bonds. Most of Billi’s family remains home in China, while she and her parents have lived in New York City since she was a young girl. This doesn’t stop Billi from communicating often via phone with her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), as the latter pesters Billi about the lack of safety in New York, staying healthy, and finding a good man. You know, grandma stuff.
But Billi mostly brushes off this line of questioning as she has other existential dilemmas on her mind, primarily her rejected application for a grant that would help her pursue her writing career. To make matters worse, she learns from her parents that Nai Nai is dying of cancer and only has a few short months to live. Rather than tell Nai Nai of her fate, the family has conspired to keep it all a secret and have orchestrated a faux wedding back in China so the entire family can say their goodbyes – much to the chagrin of Billi.
This opens up the major ethical dilemma of the film – do we owe it to our loved ones to tell them the truth at all costs, or leave them in blissful ignorance? Eventually, the film’s answer becomes clear; especially as we learn more about Nai Nai and the circumstances of her own choices. But the journey to get there features a tormented Billi trying to grapple with the strict regulations within her bickering family while searching for a way to say goodbye to her grandmother.
While this is all heavy material, the film isn’t interested in wallowing in self-pity. Instead, the melodrama is complimented with a blend of fatuous humor. Relatives argue over the proper way to raise children, fathers ignore promises of sobriety, all while Billie’s cousin Hao Hao and his ditzy non-Chinese-speaking girlfriend Aiko (Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara respectively, who together almost steal the movie) clumsily try to put on the facade that they’re getting married. This is a true portrait of a family – one where no one has their shit together, but the most likable ones are those who have come to terms with that fact.
While most of the family does the bare minimum to put Nai Nai at ease, it’s Billie who’s laser focused on taking advantage of the time her grandmother has left. Awkwafina and Shuzhen have remarkable chemistry with each other, as Awkwafina is put in the rare role of the ‘straight man’, playing off Shuzhen’s savage takedowns of the entire family. Nai Nai is blunt, often rude, and heavily opinionated, but Shuzhen empowers her with enough charm, class, wisdom, and heart that endears her to the audience. Besides, who can hate a woman dying of cancer? Wang pulls off the tricky balance of hinting towards the somber truth that follows Nai Nai around, while presenting her as a sassy bad ass who is at no point challenged by any of her family members, and for good reason.
Nai Nai’s upbeat demeanor is juxtaposed with the guarded stoicism of Billi’s mother, Jian (Diana Lin), which explains the strained relationship between mother and daughter. Billi wears her emotions on her sleeves, a fact that Jian resents as not only a sign of weakness, but as evidence that Billi judges her for her more pragmatic outlook. Jian lived most of her life in China before moving her family to America, and her relationship with Billi is the strongest representation of the generational and cultural divide.
To many of the characters in the film, America represents freedom and independence including the pros and cons that come with it. China represents order, discipline, family, and being a part of a greater sum. This is partially depicted in how Wang frames the apartment buildings in China – symmetrical, identical, without a hint of variety. This can be off putting to some, but we learn quickly how much Billi misses China, her distant family, and her precious childhood. She doesn’t want to leave, especially if that means leaving Nai Nai’s side. This appeals to our own feelings of nostalgia and wanting to hold on to the things and people we know have an expiration date. But does knowing exactly when that expiration date will be improve or hinder your time remaining with that person?
Lulu Wang has crafted a beautiful film, one that at a run time of 98 minutes somehow leaves you fulfilled but wanting more at the same time. There isn’t a wasted frame or line of dialogue. Even in moments where the film making becomes stylized, it never feels like the filmmakers are showing off. Everything, from the performances, to the editing, pacing, and photography feels as natural as a home cooked meal. This is comfort food in the best way – one that allows you to appreciate the surroundings and the company you keep. And in avoiding the grandiose or the ridiculous, Wang has subtlety instilled in us something very important. To be in the moment, to listen, to be present, and to truly connect with those close to you – that is the best way to say goodbye.