The Farewell starts by declares itself to be ‘based on an actual lie’. This ‘actual lie’ is one based on director Lulu Wang’s truth – previously told in a radio episode of This American Life in 2016 and here bought to life in her semi-autobiographical second feature.
Billi (Awkwafina) is a New Yorker who immigrated to the US with her parents at the age of 6 from Northern China. The dramatic comedy follows Billi back to China after her grandmother ‘Nai Nai’ is diagnosed with cancer. The twist is that Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zao) is left untold. The decision is summed up by the Chinese maxim spoken by Lu Jian (Diana Li).
“Chinese people have a saying, when people get cancer they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear”
This customary decision, common in China, explores interesting cultural distinctions between a more individualistic rights-based approach to death, compared to the collective good Billi’s family strives for throughout the film.
This dichotomy is personified by Billi’s character, as the audience navigates the situation from her perspective. Fortunately, however, the film avoids portraying Billi’s disdain for the decision of the family as the morally correct view. Wang takes time to create multi-dimensional characters – each with a unique perspective that the audience comes to understand over the course of the film. In doing so we gain an equally multi-dimensional understanding of the nature of the custom.
Awkwafina’s performance is crucial to the film’s success. The actor thus far has been the comic relief in big box office films such as Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Whilst the film still makes use of her comedic sensibilities, it could prove to be a dramatic breakthrough for her, exploring Billie’s feeling of otherness around her Chinese family – pointed out by her mother claiming that she is unable to control her emotions. At the same time, her interactions with extended family create space for comedy to flourish.
The wedding of Billie’s cousin that acts as a narrative culmination point, allowing Wang to create heart-warming and funny vignettes around the family tables – showing the celebration and love that drives the central theme of family.
Regardless of the difficult topics it grabbles, the tone is light throughout. This contrast of subject matter and tone is depicted in Billie’s close relationship with Nai Nai, which are incredibly candid yet still playful. You don’t know if you’re going to laugh or cry.
Their relationship, and all the others in the film hold a cultural specificity – for example Nai Nai showing Billie an exercise she practices that involve striding and chanting ‘hah’. These traditions aren’t simply a way to depict difference, as some ‘culture-clash’ films do; instead the specificity of the film heightens its ability to speak to a universal truth. That truth is shown subtly through irritation, bickering and endearment in the family dynamic, one that is recognisable to all yet not screaming to be ‘relatable’.