THE FAREWELL. Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and Chen Han. Directed by Lulu Wang. Rated PG (Mild themes and occasional coarse language). 100 min.
This American comedy-drama is the story of members of a family who come together with a dying matriarch to celebrate an occasion with her, that “is based on a lie”. The film expresses the life experiences of its Director, Lulu Wang, who faced a similar situation in her family when her mother was dying in China.
Billi (Awkwafina), a young Chinese-American writer, who lives in the US and raised there, has developed a very close relationship with her grandmother (Zhao Shuzen) - known as Nai Nai (which is mandarin for a paternal grandmother), who lives in Changchun, China. At the time, Billi is experiencing professional disappointments in her ambition to be a writer, and she is upset to discover that her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), know that Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, and they have hid it from her. The doctors predict that Nai Nai has only a few months to live, and she doesn’t know. The family has conspired to keep the diagnosis secret from her by telling her all is well, and Billi is unhappy that everyone is deceiving her grandmother.
The family-lie follows Chinese cultural practice that tries to ensure that the family bears the emotional burden of serious illness, rather than the person who is actually sick. This is contrary to the beliefs and practices adopted in Western culture. Haiyan and Jian fear Billi, raised in Western ways, will expose the deception and they urge her to stay in New York, when the family assembles in China. Members of the family are gathering to have one last time with Nia Nia, and it is falsely explained to Nai Nai that they will be celebrating a wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han) to his girl friend of only three months. Billi refuses her parents’ request, and travels to China, thinking that the fake wedding banquet will arouse great conflict and family sadness.
In China, Billi learns that Nia Nia practiced the same lie when her husband was terminally ill, and for the same reason. As the family gathers for the wedding dinner, some of the guests, aware of the true purpose of the gathering, break down in tears. Nai Nai doesn't suspect things are wrong, and draws Billi aside to encourage her to foster her independence and to follow her goals in life. Her interaction with Nai Nai convinces Billi that she should respect her family’s decision, and Billi returns to New York.
All members of the family return to their homes with the family-lie intact, and the final credits to the movie tell us that Nai Nai is still alive, six years after her diagnosis.
This is an emotionally complex film that appeals to Chinese culture philosophically in a thoughtful way. It explores a family’s struggle with its matriarch’s impending end of life. The film mixes comedy and tragedy without being sentimental, and Awkwafina is impressive as the family member who is upset that her family is behaving deceitfully. Her performance is realistic, and in the film’s lighter moments (and there are many of them), she shows good comic timing. Awkwafina’s dramatic acting and intelligent direction by Lulu Wang help to deliver a delicate, delightful movie, which delivers human truths that combine laughter with sadness.
Central to the film are some significant themes. In a humane way, the movie demonstrates the identity clash of Eastern and Western thinking about the end of life. Lulu Wang explores this theme in a judgement-free way and delivers insights about how family members, across cultures, choose to interact with each other. The film sensitively explores how different cultures relate to someone who is dying, and it shows the struggles of caring people coming to grips with social ties that are disrupted by a family in crisis. The movie further exposes viewers to unfamiliar Chinese beliefs and practices.
This is a film about death and dying that doesn’t use cultural stereotypes in its telling. With its narrative about dying, it is nevertheless a movie that is positive, life-affirming, funny and up-lifting.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Roadshow Films Pty. Ltd.
Released September 5, 2019