The Farewell is a beautiful movie. From the artful cinematography to the cultural introspetion, Lulu Wang and co. will take you on an emotional journey.
The story revolves around Billi, who discovers her Nai Nai (grandmother, or more specifically “mother’s father”) is dying of cancer.
Billi is ethnically Chinese but has lived most of her life in New York. She speaks pretty good Mandarin, but with an American accent and a few semantic lapses. Though she grew up in China till she was 8, she definitely embodies the American mindset.
Her family, apart from immediate, has all stayed in East Asia. Mostly China, with the exception of her father’s brother (and his family), an artist who moved to Japan, but still considers himself Chinese before all.
Here’s where she differs from the rest of her family: THE LIE.
The lie is that the family has decided to not tell the grandmother that she is terminally ill (stage IV lung cancer) and instead, they will bear the burden of knowledge and try to keep her spirits up while she is alive.
They have gathered the family under the guise of a snappy wedding with Billi’s cousin and his girlfriend of 3 months. This serves as the explanation of why the family is all coming together at the same time.
Billi cannot grasp the concept of why her family would outwardly lie about the situation and the purpose of their visit, and, in her mind, this comes into conflict with all she knows (read: her more Western/US mindset). Her need to tell her grandmother seems to be more important than the family’s wish to tell keep the secret.
This clashing of mentality is central to the film. Throughout the feature, Billi has to not only come to terms with her family’s decision, but also respect it (and most importantly not judge it.) She seems to be navigating on her tip toes between trying to please her mother, father et. al and staying true to herself.
We don’t understand why Billi is so reticent to take on her family’s mindset and that isn’t explored much. She prefers to argue that this isn’t a good decision and doesn’t seem curious to know why they take care of matters that way. Most of the explanation of the why comes from her uncle (the artist in Japan).
There’s a comedically ironic moment when her uncle warns Billi repeatedly not to tell her grandmother about her condition. And yet, at the wedding, that same uncle gives an over the top emotional speech, almost spilling the beans. Oopsie..
However, there is never a scene where Billi bawls and breaks down crying as her character suggests she might, being portrayed with a reactive personality. She never cries about her Nai Nai and privately expresses her impending grief. The struggle and difficulty to understand the family lie is only verbal – speaking English to the doctor and going over her family to ask if this is unethical, the doctor responding that most families in China deal with cancer diagnoses this way. Though you could argue that inner struggle is not very cinematic, and more something suitable to a novel, The Farewell does parcels in moments where we see her hesitating before speaking, finally coming to terms with lying to her grandmother and not communicating in the same way as the culture where she spent most of her life.
All in all, this was an interesting exploration of cultural mindsets at-0dds with each other and a journey with emotional intensity and grace.
The acting was superb, my favorite being the Nai-Nai. She had a big range of emotions and all were believable. Whether it was showing her being scared at the hospital, and silly when playing games at the table, arguing about the wedding menu, worrying as grandmother’s do about everyone’s food intake, and being inspirational when teaching her granddaughter the beneficial practice of tai-chi. She was a well rounded character acted out beautifully.
The cinematography was also pleasant, seeing wide shots of the whole family walking together as a unit to the close-ups when the cousin starts to tear up, to juggling the round table debate – informational and sharp.
Life is not just about what you do. It’s more about how you do it.Nai Nai
I’ll leave you with that. Well acted, interesting storyline, a good drama with moments of humor – ⭐⭐⭐⭐