Lulu Wang’s directorial debut, The Farewell, explores the morality of lies and the complexities of family dynamics.
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell features a scene where Billi, played by Awkwafina, learns from her grandmother, or Nai Nai, how to dispel toxins from her body. The routine involves exhaling and then forcefully thrusting one’s arms in front of them and releasing an impassioned “Hah!” for added effect. It’s a genuine and cute moment between the two, one of many within the film. Yet just like the many within the film, the moment has an undeniable sense of melancholy creeping in the background.
Billi is visiting her grandmother in China because Nai Nai has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and is not expected to live for more than three months. Under the guise of her cousin’s wedding, Billi’s family comes home to have one last family get-together with Nai Nai. The only issue is that they’ve decided to keep her disease a secret from her, so she won’t live her last days in fear.
The Farewell explores this family dynamic and the conflict between brutal truths and pleasant lies with good intentions. Yet it also looks at the tension between Chinese culture and American culture through the lens of this diverse yet relatable family.
In a film with a strong emotional core, it’s important for the writing and performances to be high quality. Luckily for this film, everyone involved is firing on all cylinders. Awkwafina is brilliant, able to balance subtle sadness with lighthearted tenderness. The actors playing her parents, and for that matter the entire rest of the cast, give equally excellent performances, bringing life to the already intelligently written script.
The writing from Wang works with the performances to make every member of the family feel real, as if they have lives outside of the story the film is telling. There’s an awkward dinner scene that perfectly conveys the many dynamics and relationships within the family. There’s intention behind everything they say, all of which creates tension while hinting at their history.
This tension exists on top of the tension that comes from continuing to hide the truth of Nai Nai’s sickness from her, and adds that sense of melancholy to every seemingly normal moment. Wang is able to create this feel through her minimal yet deliberate camera work; the actors are usually framed in close-ups that show how they’re trying, and almost failing, to hide their emotions during conversations.
The performances also work to show the relationships between each member of the family. Awkwafina and first time actor Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai perfectly convey a grandmother and grandchild relationship, while Billi’s father and her uncle feel like brothers through their small interactions alone.
The Farewell is realistic not just because it captures the serious and sad moments of life, but because it finds time for humor as well. The family has their disagreements, but they still care for each other, enough that they can put aside their petty arguments to have fun with Nai Nai for possibly the last time.
Surrounding the heart of the film — the dilemma of lying about Nai Nai’s terminal illness — is the conflict between Chinese and American culture. Billi has lived in the U.S. for most of her life, literally and emotionally becoming distant from her Chinese relatives. When they meet up, there is interaction and conflict, but there’s also a distinct sense of isolation. Her Mandarin is poor, she doesn’t have a stable job, and her emotions make it difficult to keep up the lie.
The fact that only Nai Nai seems happy that Billi’s there just makes the lie even more heart-wrenching. Yet everyone in the film lies at some point, raising the question: when is it okay to lie? Can we lie to keep our loved ones from worrying? Is it okay to hide something to not take attention away from important matters? Can you still love and care for someone while keeping a secret from them?
By the end, Wang doesn’t have any wide-sweeping answer about the morals of lying. She doesn’t have a conclusion to the conflicts; there is no exact resolution. There’s only Billi, her family, and their individual answers.
This isn’t just a story of losing a loved one, it’s also one of finding connections and accepting faults. In this way, The Farewell becomes universal in its themes, but distinctly personal in its execution. It’s a somber yet heartwarming piece that proves to be one of the best films of the year.