The opening of The Farewell tells us we are in for a story that is “Based on an Actual Lie.”
Young Billi (Awkwfina) is an artist living in New York. Every day she speaks to her Nai Nai in China. Billi discovers her Nai Nai has stage IV lung cancer and doesn’t have long to live. Billi’s parents have to fly home, but they don’t want her to come because Billi is far too emotional. She’s too emotional to convincingly keep their secret… their lie.
In Chinese culture, it’s common practice not to tell the elderly they have a terminal condition. And so the lie begins. Billi’s parents don’t want her there as Nai Nai’s end draws near because they fear Billi won’t be able to control her emotions and the secret will be revealed.
The family uses the excuse of a wedding to gather together. Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao is the poor family member thrust into getting married so the family has a credible reason to make the trip to China. Nai Nai is naturally thoroughly delighted to see her family reunited for this wedding.
It’s about keeping up appearances while everyone puts on a happy facade while knowing someone the dearly love is going to die. Awkwafina gets to play another surprising card in her wide-ranging resume, from portraying the fearless and ultra-stylish best friend in Crazy Rich Asians to the jewel thief in Ocean’s Eight. In The Farewell, Awkwafina plays an absorbing dramatic character as she deals with grief, tradition, culture and keeping secrets.
Billi being Billi, and not willing to pass up her last chance to say “goodbye,” flies to China so she can be there. Her torment is knowing her grandmother is going to die, and it kills her, but she has to maintain the proper front. Zhao Shuzhen is absolutely superb with the one-liners and comedic timing, oblivious to her family’s conflict around her. She comments on Billi’s weight, looks, and eating habits. It’s what they do in Asian culture. Your hair’s too long. You’re not eating enough. You eat plenty. It’s loving criticism that comes from family and you smile and obey. It’s what Billi does.
Wang superbly weaves the story of immigration and cultural differences through her astute and sensitive story. Billi has traveled from New York. That’s her home. It’s where she has lived. Now, she’s going back to China, and she is at conflict with this pressure of the lie. She wants to tell Nai Nai the truth and has trouble understanding the need for deception. They’re there to say goodbye, but not. It feels so wrong to her that the joyful occasion of a wedding is being used to mask their grief; the wedding disguises the goodbye.
The Farewell is not entirely dramatic and mournful, there’s plenty of humor. Since the film is presented in two languages, it showcases an absorbing journey, a journey of identity. Billi grew up in America; she’s American, but she’s also Chinese, so she’s Chinese? On top of everything else, it’s that clash of cultural identity that Billi has to grapple with. In America, in the West, we tell the person they’re dying. In Chinese tradition, the belief is that the knowledge will hasten your death through fear. What’s the right thing to do?
That’s that ultimate question posed. The one that strikes at the heart. The Farewell presents itself with a universal themes and questions to become a broadly relatable story.
Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara (as Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao and his bride to be) play their parts in the charade with endearing awkwardness. They’ve been roped in to pose as a love-stuck couple but how can their hearts be in it? At one point, Nai Nai advises the bride to rest her head on her fiance’s shoulder. It’s an amusing moment, but Nai Nia is the one most joyful to be planning this wedding and everyone tries to comply to be sure she’s happy.
Awkwakfina executes her dramatic performance with graceful finesse. It’s a poignant journey with wonderful characters. There is such a warm and endearing connection and chemistry whenever Billi and Nai Nai share scenes, all the more heartwarming because we can see and Billi’s torment. We feel for her dilemma so strongly, while we wonder if she might break down and tell the truth, we ask ourselves if we would too
The Farewell is a heartfelt film, a brilliant story with a shimmering soul. A melancholy drama wrapped in buoyant comedy, it’s a look at Chinese tradition and culture – emotional, insightful, and fabulously brilliant. Credit Awkwafina for much of the film’s heart-rending precision, as we see through Billi’s eyes to look at love and loss and the meaning of life, and the lies we tell to protect those who we love the most.