For an ethnic Chinese child immigrant like me, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell felt deeply personal and unbelievably authentic. The film, based on Wang’s own experience, centers around Billi, played by Awkwafina, who becomes entangled in an enormous lie about her beloved grandmother, or Nai Nai in Mandarin. Billi’s parents and extended family are adamant about keeping Nai Nai’s terminal cancer diagnosis a secret, insisting that it would be better to let her slip away stress free, so the family orchestrates a fake wedding as an excuse for everyone to gather for a final farewell in China. The resounding accuracy with which the film captures the experience of a young Chinese American person moving between worlds is dizzying. Watching the film, which is mostly in Mandarin, is an almost surreal experience. An Asian American film seemingly untethered to the Western gaze is a first.
The Farewell is full of truths about the human condition. Though personal and specific, those truths—including the ones listed below—resonate universally.
1. Telling lies
We all tell white lies and lies of convenience sometimes, especially to our families. We tell ourselves that we’re lying to shield them from worry and that it’s for the best, but it often doesn’t feel great. When the movie begins, Billi lies easily on the phone with Nai Nai about wearing a hat when she is clearly not, keeping her grandmother’s well-intentioned nagging at bay. Meanwhile, Nai Nai lies to Billi about being in a hospital waiting room waiting for her test results. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, demonstrating how easily family members can lie to each other, casually and routinely.
2. Finding identity
Billi struggles with her identity as an American returning to China. Now an independent American woman, Billi must reconcile with the trauma of having been suddenly torn away from everything and everyone she once knew and loved as a child. She is trying to decide where in the world she belongs at this moment in her life. This search for identity, often called a crisis, is not unique to immigrants, as many people feel tormented due to a lack of cultural identity while growing up in America. This soul-searching, stake-claiming journey is a kind of prerequisite for adulthood.
3. Defining success
Billi is a writer in New York who can’t afford her rent. Her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship is rejected. Her credit card debt continues to mount as she charges to it her flight to China.
Billi doesn’t know what her future holds, which is something most of us have experienced in our careers. Should we forge ahead despite the risks, or do we change course?
4. Nosy relatives
A moment of levity takes form when Nai Nai is tickled by the English exchange between Billi and the handsome, young doctor who studied in England. “You’re so young and handsome. And a doctor! Are you married?” Nai Nai asks him coyly, predictability fishing for romantic potential for her beloved granddaughter. Sadly, the reality of the interaction between Billi and the doctor was straight-forward and somber, since she’s only thinking of Nai Nai’s health and he’s helping the family lie to Nai Nai. This makes Nai Nai’s oblivious matchmaking attempt all the more endearing and bittersweet.
Most of us are not immune to family members either covertly or overtly attempting to influence our romantic life, from probing questions to embarrassing setups. The Farewell merely positions this common phenomenon in the most awkward of scenarios.
5. Loving food
When Billi surprises everyone after arriving unannounced in China, dinner is being prepared. The intimacy permeates through the screen, and for anyone who grew up around a kitchen, it’s undeniably nostalgic. Nai Nai stuffs a meat pie in Billi’s mouth. “Eat! It was your favorite when you were little,” she says, gleaming. Bonding over meals and using food as an expression of love is universal. The Farewell makes effective use of this human experience.
6. Doting on dogs
I love the scene when Nai Nai and Little Nai Nai coax their tiny Chihuahua to sing. I loved it even more when I learned the dog actually belongs to Wang’s family and is named Ellen (after a foreign exchange student they hosted). People in China love their dogs, and the bond with our pets is one that resonates universally.
7. Cringing at dad jokes
Watching Billi’s parents entertain (white) guests at their home while her father (Tzi Ma) confidently sits at the head of the dinner table, telling a corny dad joke, was familiar yet groundbreaking. I don’t recall ever before seeing an Asian person depicted as the confident head of household in front of white American friends. It seemed unremarkable, yet nonetheless foreign for me in the context of a big screen.
8. Arguing with parents
Billi argues with her parents, especially her mother, throughout the film. Even with the best of intentions, parents know how to push our buttons and we know how to push theirs. Tougher still is when you’re in a position like Billi’s, defending one parent against the other or urging a parent to change. Billi asks her mother to lay off of her dad, who is drinking heavily to cope with the grief of losing his mother, Nai Nai. Billi also becomes frustrated with her father for smoking when Nai Nai is dying of lung cancer.
Whether loud or quiet, we all argue with our parents.
9. Grieving loved ones
Dealing with death or the impending death of a loved one is a painful, universally relatable experience. Whether the end comes suddenly or slowly, it will be equally heartbreaking. The Farewell invites the audience into a beautiful rumination of a most intimate and personal encounter with grief.
10. Losing control
Death is not something within our control. Billi is at a point in her life where little is anchoring her in New York, and she fears the impending loss of Nai Nai will signify the dissolution of her remaining roots in China. The cancer secret and the elaborate fake wedding is a way for Billi’s family to claim a sense of control in a situation where they have none. The fear of losing control is a fear that all humans live with.
When my last remaining grandparent passed away in Asia, my parents tried to hide it from me because I was far along in my pregnancy. They feared that I would be overcome with grief and they worried for my unborn baby. Like Nai Nai in The Farewell, they tried to shield me for my own good. Unfortunately, I am too American to appreciate this kind of protection. I was frustrated that I’d been handled with kid gloves. I did not feel fragile—I felt angry.
I adored my grandfather, my Lao Yeh, whose funny morning exercises mirrored Nai Nai’s. And like Billi, Lao Yeh felt like my last solid connection to my faraway past. I did not have the opportunity to say my final goodbye. So I laughed and wept in the dark theater, feeling fortunate to be a fly on the wall for Nai Nai’s family farewell.