At its core, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is a universal tale of love and loss. It follows a young Chinese-American woman named Billi (Awkwafina) who lives in New York City. Her nuclear family moved to America when she was little, but the rest of her massive family unit is back in China. When grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family decides to keep the news from her in hopes that her last days might be spent in peace. They organize a fake wedding in China for one of Billi’s cousins as an excuse for everyone to gather one last time before Nai Nai’s death.
Once everyone is together in China, personal histories start to unfold, which form a larger, in depth history of the family. Long overlooked points of tension bubble to the surface during meal times. There is a clear departure in values from one section of the family to the next, but there are no antagonists. Whether it be about the significance of money over contentment, the sending of Chinese students to the U.S. for college, innate responsibilities and roles within the family, or the ethics of Eastern traditions, there is a feeling of profundity in the dialogue Wang writes for her characters.
Wang’s screenwriting abilities are astounding in that she gives all her subjects a fair shake, i.e. a complex reading. You will side with different people on different matters based on your own values and understanding of the issues. The characters are so intricate, so full of life. It’s like walking into a room of strangers you hit it off with immediately. I found myself forming opinions on the relationships between different combinations of people based on legitimate ethical convictions or cultural interpretations.
Wang’s lens is both critical and lovingly appreciative of Chinese culture. She speaks through Billi’s mom (Diana Lin) a critique of the ethos of public mourning after a death in the family (see: Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart for a drawn out, gut-wrenching display of what this looks like, courtesy of Zhao Tao). Sometimes it results in families hiring extras to come cry at funerals to show off, which Wang clearly has some issue with, or at least finds comical.
She constantly addresses the perception of America from the Chinese perspective, and in doing so, addresses and strengthens (for what are primarily American viewers) a realistic perception of China from the American perspective. It feels so rare in its fairness to everyone, considering the near-extinction of fairness and kindness in 2019. She never leans toward the supremacy of either country’s culture; rather, she points out the beauties and superficialities of the traditions and concepts that makeup each culture in all their differences.
Wang also has a great sense of how long she’s let her audience wade in sadness. She never lets us sink into bleakness or depression before making us laugh. And it’s not like there’s just a good amount of comedic relief. This is a comedy as much as it is a drama, and it’s as strong in its comedic effect — mostly played through poking fun at traditions and familial relations — as it is in its deeply felt drama. Everyone in the family has perfect chemistry and timing, constantly cutting each other off and challenging one another like real families do.
The Farewell has everything. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, uniquely heartfelt, and full of surprises — a cocktail of storytelling devices that goes down as strong as it does smooth. It’s revelatory in its treatment of race, culture, modernity, tradition, and all of the shit caught in between. It’s under-girded by a fantastic score made up of string trios, quartets, and quintets.
My biggest take away from The Farewell brought me back to one of my favorite classes in undergrad: bioethics, where the commonality in all cases is the value of the human life, and culture must be thrust under a harsh magnifying glass in the interest of the patient. We read Anne Fadiman’s seminal work of ethics, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, an answer-free look at the drastic difference in Eastern and Western practices in medicine.
Five minutes in, I was lightly frustrated by the film’s premise (an intended frustration, I believe). I was practically screaming inside, “You have to tell her!” It felt unethical to keep the details of one’s own forthcoming death from them. And Wang wrestles with that through Billi’s more Western ideals. And in doing so, Wang explains that in China’s more Eastern-minded understanding of community and spirituality in death, family and/or society is responsible for carrying the burden of that death.
In America, that’s illegal, and maybe it should be. But, I walked out of The Farewell comfortable and confident in the family’s decision. Wang really puts us in their shoes, explains the cultural difference, and remains comfortable while critical, as if to tell us that tradition is only as it is healthy. And, while I may not know it in my own life, there is a healthy communal version of death that looks exactly like The Farewell, and it’s as beautiful as any next way of handling such an impossible situation.