The Farewell | Review

Like many people from diaspora communities, Billi Wang - the leading character played by Nora Lum a.k.a Awkwafina in Lulu Wang’s debut feature The Farewell - is all too familiar with the feeling of goodbye. You can see it in the expression she holds throughout much of the film. Her face is intense and stone still. Her eyes are unfocused yet filled with intent. She looks past and through everything that’s in front of her, searching for something in the distance - something that seems to be receding further and further out of sight, out of reach. 

Returning to her home country of China for the first time in many years, Billi finds herself negotiating the intersection of two different types of grief. The first is an old grief brought to the fore by her holiday to home - a migratory grief she’s been carrying ever since she immigrated to the United States with her parents at the age of six. The second grief is premature. Her paternal grandmother (or, in Mandarin, her Nai Nai) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The doctors believe she only has a few months left to live. As if that isn’t enough to process, Billi’s family have decided not to tell Nai Nai (played by Zhao Shuzhen) about her diagnosis. Instead, Billi’s cousin will come back to China to marry his Japanese wife. This way, the whole family can return home without rousing any suspicion. 

At first, Billi’s mother and father - Jian and Haiyan - attempt to deceive not only Nai Nai, but Billi herself. This doesn’t last long. Billi forces the information out of them after finding Haiyan, played by Tzi Ma, sitting frozen on the side of his bed. It's a disquieting moment. Tzi has always been a versatile actor but in Hollywood he is best known for playing dignified authority figures: ambassadors, military generals, policemen, consuls, and deadly assassins. Here, he is hunched over, his body shrinking in on itself. He is afraid to make eye contact. His wrinkles look soft and droopy, as if tired from carrying their own weight. He’s just a father doing his best not to break down in front of his daughter. That’s why he’s so still. The slightest movement could send him crumbling.

When Billi discovers the truth, her parents insist she stay in America. As Jian (Diana Lin) bluntly reminds her, she is unable to conceal her emotions. Billi tries to protest, but her bewilderment and outrage just strengthens her mother’s point. Jian explains that the lie they’re telling isn’t entirely unique; it’s a Chinese tradition that the Americanised Billi cannot easily understand. “Chinese people have a saying,” Jian says. “When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” Billi isn’t fully convinced by this explanation, but she’s desperate to at least try to see things from their perspective. More importantly, she wants the chance to say her final farewells. After her parents leave for China, she takes it upon herself to book a flight and join them in Nai Nai’s home in Changchun. 

Lulu Wang knows that, for many, saying farewell to an ancestral home is a sensation that never really disappears; it settles itself into the body - that limp, reluctant movement of a hand waving slowly but ceaselessly within your chest. During transient returns, when every moment of closeness is a reminder of all the ways you have been distant, that feeling becomes as thick, as wide, and as hefty as a continent. In The Farewell, so many scenes are charged with that weight. It’s there in the shots of the landscape - Billi glancing through car windows at the construction sites and tower blocks that have been built over her childhood memories. It’s in the small passing criticisms of Billi’s ‘bad Chinese’, of Haiyan’s face, which - according to Nai Nai - looks “wrong”. It’s in the roundtable discussions and family dinners, everyone nestled together yet divided by metres of wood (and delicious food). “It’s been too long since we’ve all been together like this,” Nai Nai says to a room full of wincing faces. “I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time”.

In these moments, Haiyan and Haiban - Billi’s uncle who immigrated to Japan, played by Jiang Yongbo - can’t resist the pull of immigrant guilt. They’ve missed so many parts of Nai Nai’s life, deprived her of so much potential maternal joy. Instead, she’s been left with her hilariously inept partner - who she keeps around for the sake of having another body in the building - and her younger sister (referred to as Little Nai Nai, played by Lu Hong), with whom she has a caring, nagging relationship. It’s difficult for the brothers to escape the feeling they’ve failed their familial duty, which makes the task at hand all the more crucial. As Haiban explains to Billi, keeping the knowledge of Nai Nai’s cancer a secret is a selfless act of care; it is their responsibility to carry this burden so Nai Nai doesn’t have to. In one of the film’s most striking sequences, we see the whole family walking in dreamlike slow-motion towards the camera. They’re in formation, one organised unit, with Billi front and centre. Their faces are serious, determined, eyes directed straight at the audience. They have a job to do and they’re taking it seriously. It’s like a scene from a gangster movie - the mafia rolling out to perform one last high-stakes hit. A farewell mission. 

You get the sense it isn’t just the characters who understand the gravity of their responsibility. After all, there is a dearth of Asian-American cinema. 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians is the most recent phenomena. Prior to that it was 1993’s Joy Luck Club and 1961’s Flower Drum Song. When you’re contributing to such a bare canon, there is a lot of pressure for your work to be especially rich. Minority writers have to deal with internal anxieties that majoritised artists rarely have to consider. For white audiences, you feel as if you have to explain nuances of your culture that may be perceived as opaque, inaccessible. Even for Chinese audiences, there is a fear of being ‘inauthentic’, of failing to accurately represent the experiences of an underrepresented but diverse people. The Farewell shows that Wang knows the importance of working through and resisting these pressures. The story is personal - its scope much narrower and less grandiose than its big-budget precursors. She has the confidence to know that close fidelity to her truth will always feel more authentic than thin, vague attempts to cover all the bases.

The movie also rarely panders. There is minimal explanation of cultural traditions - the food, the drinking games, the offerings to the dead - and almost all of its dialogue is spoken in Mandarin (there’s subtitles, don’t worry). It’s clear that Wang has thought carefully about how to avoid overindulging easy, reductive dichotomies: East/West, Individualism/Collectivism, Grief/Joy, Drama/Comedy. These concepts are still extremely present at the heart of the movie but they’re dealt with deftly and carefully; every argument is met with a counterargument. A dinnertime discussion between Jian and Billi's auntie (or ‘gu gu’), for instance, quickly turns into a debate about national identity and the differing values of China and the United States. Jian tells a touching anecdote about how, shortly after they immigrated to America, a generous priest saw Billi playing on the church piano. Upon discovering that the family were unable to continue paying for Billi’s tuition, he offered Billi a key to the building so that she could practise whenever she liked. “That’s America,” Jian concludes. It’s a nice story, but it’s the type of one-sided, over-sentimental rhetoric often used to cover up the darker sides of the USA’s personality. A writer with less awareness would have let this moment sit by itself, in all its misleading power. Instead, Billi calls her mother out. There’s more to America than acts of generosity, she reminds Jian. There’s bad shit too. Mass shootings, for example. 

Billi’s jibe is indicative of the movie’s commitment to balance, and its rejection of essentialism. This isn’t to say Wang strips her characters of essentialist beliefs - rather, we are invited to listen to these beliefs, admire the aspects that are true and beautiful, and still question the ways they are flawed. One of the movie’s most quotable lines comes from Haiban, who stresses the fundamental differences between the collectivist East and the individualist West. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself,” he says to Billi. “In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” This time, Billi has no snarky riposte. But the argument against Haiban’s assertion is there in the narrative. Billi may be the film’s most individualistic character, but she still knows what it means to tell ‘good lies’ to her family; in an early scene, she hides the fact she’s been rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship because she doesn’t want her family to worry. Meanwhile, Nai Nai - the oldest character, who’s lived in mainland China her whole life - consistently encourages Billi to be herself, to follow her dreams. People and cultures aren’t necessarily as easy to categorise as Haiban would have us believe. 

This refusal of restrictive categories is further reflected in the movie’s genre. Much like the Chinese-American Billi and Lulu Wang, The Farewell has a hyphenated identity: comedy-drama. And it is Wang’s insistence on creating a joyful movie that ultimately makes it so rewarding and genuinely life-affirming (after the third wave of sobs, at least). Wang avoids the dangerous storytelling habit of trapping immigrant characters in narratives of despair. The Wangs may be a Chinese family dealing with grief, but they're also a Chinese family who hold each other, cook together, tell each other jokes, and sing karaoke loudly and proudly. The journey of their grief and their relationship with their homeland is not an endless, one-directional path of sadness. 

And the joy and humour found in The Farewell is always natural, often unexpected. There aren’t any forced, clumsy punchlines. Instead, wit derives seamlessly from the interaction between characters. Of course, this allows Awkwafina’s comedic craft to shine - her timing, her goofy delivery, her subtle facial tics - but it’s Zhao Shuzhen who earns the most laughs and grins. She imbues the film with a grandmother’s humour: warm, familiar, and sometimes mean. Who else can call you stupid and, with a light slap on the cheek, make the whole world feel lighter? There are some feelings only the love of a nai nai can create. Amongst everything else, Wang’s movie is a celebration of that love - and an elegy to it.

The Farewell comes to UK Cinemas September 20th 2019.

Until next time

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