The need for diversity in filmmaking has (slowly) begun to be reflected in wider releases, as studios and producers come to understand that maybe there’s more to this world than a bunch of upper-middle-class white people. But indie film has always seen a greater scope of cinematic storytelling than the mainstream. The Farewell, from writer/director Lulu Wang, falls somewhere between independent and mainstream as it tells a story deeply enmeshed in Chinese and Chinese-American culture and features a YouTube star/rapper who proves (if Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians didn’t) that she’s also a fantastic dramatic actress.
Awkwafina is Billi, an immigrant to the United States with much of her extended family still living in China. She’s close to her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). Her parents finally tell her that Nai Nai has lung cancer and probably not much longer to live. But the rest of the family are determined to conceal the cancer diagnosis from Nai Nai, instead setting up a fake wedding between Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), as an excuse to get the whole family back together to see Nai Nai one last time.
The Farewell deals with more than just a family facing grief, collectively and individually—it develops intergenerational and cultural conflict. Billi is horrified that her family refuses to even tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis, going through contortions to conceal the fact even as Nai Nai begins to feel sicker in the lead up to the wedding. The extremity of the lie is a source of conflict and humor, as Billi tries to handle the insistence on, and reasoning about, the lie, and her own grief over losing her grandmother. There is an emphasis on language (Billi speaks “bad” Chinese, according to her family, and doesn’t always understand terms and references) coupled with generational conflict and culture – Billi’s mother and father moved to America when she was young, and she feels at once isolated from Chinese culture but also imperfectly “Americanized.”
Billi is haunted by her love for her grandmother, her own grief at the loss of someone she loves, and the subsequent loss of connection to China that her grandmother’s death represents. Billi’s parents and family consider her “too American” to understand the reasons behind their lie, and even seek to exclude her because they believe she’ll be unable to conceal her emotions appropriately. The film accomplishes the delicate balance of acknowledging cultural tensions and emphasizing the humanity of individuals and the dynamic of families—shaped by different cultures, certainly, but not all that different. As the film goes on, the expression of emotion runs the gamut, and it’s not just Billi who finds herself unable to control her reaction to her grandmother’s approaching death.
The Farewell has a slightness to it that leaves some questions unanswered and characters unexplored. Aiko, Hao Hao’s fiancée, is never developed as a character—she doesn’t speak Chinese, but it’s clear that she knows that the wedding is not real even as she goes through with it. But the oddness of this structure and the focus on the family means that Aiko becomes a nonentity, only important insofar as she provides an excuse to the family to come together. It’s an uncomfortable element in an otherwise fascinating film, complicated further by the fact that Hao Hao is silent for much of the film (he’s an immigrant himself, raised in Japan by Chinese parents). These peripheral characters at times appear sidelined in favor of Billi’s story – a natural emphasis, perhaps, but Wang might have developed them more via Billi’s relationship to them.
Writer/director Lulu Wang has a complex approach to her subject, based on her own grandmother’s illness and her family’s reaction to it. The Farewell exhibits a well-balanced combination of humor and sorrow, of family gatherings with plenteous food, joy, and old animosities that ebb and flow and sometimes pass by the younger generation. The power of the film lies in its rendering of individual sorrow combined with a broader look into the experience of immigrants who feel at once united with and alienated from the cultures they inhabit. Billi’s struggle is not just about the loss of her grandmother but about the slow severing of her connection to China and her own past, and The Farewell renders this tension with sensitivity and humor.
The Farewell goes into wide release on July 12, 2019.