The Farewell captures the nuanced complexity of family and cultural values

Filmmaker Lulu Wang balances her American and Chinese identities in this loving tribute to her Nai Nai

The Farewell is a family drama that explores the idea of personal identity. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival / Variety.

By: Kitty Cheung, Peak Associate

The Farewell begins with the words “Based on an actual lie,” alluding to the fact that this story was derived from filmmaker Lulu Wang’s personal life. Starring rapper-comedian-actor Awkwafina, the 2019 film centers on Billi, a Chinese-American writer who finds out that her Nai Nai (“grandmother” in Mandarin) has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Devastated, her family decides to carry on the cultural tradition of collective grief, bearing the weight of this news for Nai Nai — and keeping it a secret from her. Embarking on an elaborate ruse, they stage a wedding as an excuse to return to the motherland and see Nai Nai one last time. 

Drawing from a real-life story, the protagonist Billi is a thinly-veiled version of Wang herself. Most of the movie’s dialogue is spoken in Mandarin, with English subtitles and a majority-Asian cast. As the audience, we see how language and cultural barriers tie into family communication. In a household where multiple languages are spoken, the confusion and miscommunication running through Billi’s diasporic family aligned with Wang’s own immigrant experience. 

Navigating between Chinese and American cultural values, Billi’s struggle with her cultural identity is nuanced and complex. While grieving for her grandma, she is caught between the morality of withholding someone’s medical condition from them and keeping with her family’s collective promise.

The duality of these perspectives was touched upon by Awkwafina in an interview with comedian Margaret Cho: “As an American, it seemed very wrong to me at first. But as Asian people, we have an undying reverence for our elders, and when you think about it as a communication of love, respect, and generosity, you realize that it’s complicated, layered, and very profound.”

Already a fan of Awkwafina’s music and comedy, I was beyond excited to see her in her first dramatic role. While her acting as Billi was notable for her subtle emotiveness, actor Zhao Shuzhen, who plays Nai Nai, absolutely stole the show. Acting with both the cheeky sass and ferocious affection of a Chinese grandmother, she was at once sweet, brash, melodramatic, painfully stubborn, and charismatic.

The relationship between Zhao and Awkwafina is well worth lauding. Details in the film that especially warmed my heart came from their on-screen chemistry, such as Nai Nai patting Billi’s butt, or Nai Nai calling Billi “stupid child” as a term of affection.

Having been born in China and raised in the US, Wang speaks about the feeling of losing your culture in an interview with The Guardian: “In addition to saying goodbye to grandma, there’s this feeling of sand slipping through your fingers, of being unable to hold on to past memories and feelings — unable to find anything concrete that represents home.”

This feeling was especially prominent in a scene where Billi is driven through Changchun, Nai Nai’s hometown. The car passes by Nai Nai’s former neighbourhood, which has now become a construction site due to China’s rapid modernization. Having only caught fleeting glimpses of her grandmother’s old home, there is a desperation in Billi’s voice as she asks to be driven back, only to have Nai Nai herself say that she barely recognized the place.

Regarding the cinematography of this film, the framing of certain shots was artful, rife with thought and intention. Whether it’s placing the camera inside an MRI machine, on the lazy Susan of the circular dining table during family meals, or up close to a painting in the hospital waiting room, Wang’s artistic direction makes this film a calculated visual feast. The conversation illuminated by yellow streetlight that Billi has with her uncle and father as they smoke cigarettes, as well as the neon red of Billi’s hotel room, come to mind as examples of how the lighting and colouring of certain shots is artwork in itself.

Throughout the film, I noticed that Wang didn’t need to hold the audience’s hand and explain everything about Chinese culture for us. The drinking game scene is iconic; instead of explaining the rules to the audience, Wang believes it’s “more engaging” for an audience to wonder, ask questions, and catch up for ourselves. Rather than acting as cultural tour guide to different audiences, Wang is unapologetic as she writes from her own experience. She told The Guardian, “I had to take on that audacity of saying, ‘I don’t care if you don’t understand. This is my reality, and I’m going to assume you do.’

Overall, The Farewell is filled with many tender moments that explore the complexity of families and the idea of reconciling one’s ancestral culture with modern life. It’s a humble film that is rich with culture and questions about identity, which don’t always need to be fully answered.

Released in July, The Farewell is currently still playing in select theatres.