Arts movie review

What is left unsaid

‘The Farewell’ is a rare find, capturing the complicated essence of division and unity within a family

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Awkwafina stars as Billi in Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell.'
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Directed by Lulu Wang
Screenplay by Lulu Wang
Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

Try fully expressing what your family means to you. The quirks of your relatives, the stories that only you know, the strange way that just the thought of family can cause you to laugh, grimace, or cry — there is some deep emotional response that is hard to communicate in a tangible way. In her new film, The Farewell, director Lulu Wang displays an incredible capacity for harnessing these raw feelings, creating a story and visual experience that truly hits home. 

In fact, Wang wrote the unique plot of her film based on a similar experience in her own life. The movie follows the events of Chinese American Billi (Awkwafina) and her family when they discover that Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), is terminally ill. Deciding that it would be best to keep this diagnosis a secret from her, the family plans an impromptu wedding in China for Billi’s cousin to fabricate a reason for everyone to gather and see Nai Nai for what might be the last “Farewell.”

The film creates a complex concept of love within Billi’s family by contrasting the adults’ pride in being “strong” and unfeeling with displays of their raw and uncontrolled emotions. When Billi first arrives in China, her conversation with her uncle consists of him telling her over and over again that she cannot give away to Nai Nai any information about her medical condition, and Billi repeating over and over again, “I know.” While the one-sided conversation in this situation is humorous, this moment highlights the difficulty that Chinese parents often have with expressing love, creating stiffer relationships with their children. However, Wang’s script really shines because it illuminates the coexistence of this theme with other family dynamics, like the love that Nai Nai extends to all of her family and also receives. 

The premise of keeping Nai Nai’s illness a secret from her shocks Billi, drawing attention to the cultural differences between America, where “you think that life belongs to oneself,” and China, where one’s life belongs to a community. Billi, with her strongly accented Chinese and slouched posture, but also strong affection for China and Nai Nai, treads the line between the two cultures and gives a voice to the Chinese-American experience. Importantly, The Farewell avoids painting the differences between China and America as a matter of one country being better than the other. As Billi replies, when asked by an off-putting hotel worker about which country she prefers, “It’s just different.”

Distinct and nostalgic qualities of China are excellently captured by the cinematography. Billi’s arrival in China is signaled with shots of endless tall, identical apartment buildings set against a gray sky, eventually leading to the generic block-colored apartment complex that Nai Nai lives in. This visual impression is starkly different from the previously shown New York City, with Billi walking past graffiti covered walls and alleyways. The film is decorated with more small details that are so characteristically Chinese, from patterned wallpapers and blankets to paintings of flowers and posters of random babies. With colors and shots that feel calm and comfortable, Wang creates a special tone for the movie that can only be described as personal. 

The set design generates powerful juxtapositions that supplement the plot. The dramatic irony surrounding Nai Nai’s illness is accented by brightly colored wedding photo-shoot props and pastel balloons, popping out in a tacky way against the relatively muted colors of the general landscape. Bustling family gatherings are punctuated by visuals of uncomfortable, smothered expressions.

The film introduces a slew of characters, depicting quirky personalities that will ring true to Chinese-Americans. Nai Nai is especially realistic, even comically so, with her tai chi exercises in the apartment courtyard, constant frustration with her husband, and teasing interactions with Billi (“stupid child”). Awkwafina’s spot-on acting, capturing the delicate balance between sadness and tenderness, allows the audience to see Billi’s emotional struggle during her interactions with Nai Nai. 

Billi’s relationship with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) is painted in stark contrast to her caring bond with Nai Nai. Her parents have difficulty sharing their emotions with her, even initially trying to hide the fact that Nai Nai is dying. The film allows the audience to see through Billi’s eyes, feeling the hurt that she experiences when she rests her head on her mother’s shoulder, only to be shrugged off. Billi sees her father smoking and asks him about it, but he simply dismisses her concerns and avoids talking about the subject. Awkwafina communicates Billi’s feelings and interestingly, suggests a level of acceptance and normalization of this dynamic between Billi and her parents. In order to highlight the feelings that are not communicated entirely through words, Wang uses shots focusing on different characters’ faces, providing depth to characters like Billi’s parents who are otherwise less open. In addition, moments where the characters break away from the paradigm of stoicness are spotlighted, stripped raw so that they are punctuated by striking dialogue and emotional vulnerability. The cast’s phenomenal performances make the film so much more heartbreaking, crystallizing the division between what the characters say and how they feel, as well as the difficulty they have with traversing this barrier.

This challenge perhaps has to do with the complex mentality that members of Billi’s family (and many ethnically Chinese people) have — there is something honorable in purposefully carrying a burden for someone else. This idea of family over self repeats constantly, raising compelling questions about how much responsibility one should assume for their loved ones. The idea that family is a unit is more powerful than it seems — it reinforces a way of thinking that seeps into every aspect of life. While this mentality can stifle relationships, as seen with Billi and her parents, the film also shows how it brings them together. The movie takes the idea of carrying a family’s burden and carefully explores the different ways people express this form of love. Ultimately, The Farewell probes at whether this expectation for family is feasible, and more importantly, why this responsibility is so important to Billi’s family. Much like these questions, the emotions evoked by the film are impactful and perhaps too complex to even fully comprehend. 

Unlike Crazy Rich Asians, the other recent full-Asian cast Hollywood movie that comes to mind, The Farewell is not flashy or over-the-top. Its modesty is what allows the film to be amazingly three-dimensional and full of life. Raw performances by the cast bring depth to well-developed and intricate characters, and the family interactions are portrayed in a way that speaks to the shared struggles and joys within a family that ultimately transcend any perceived cultural barriers. 

Wang’s film brings to light the complexities of the Chinese and Chinese-American experience that have not been prominent in western mainstream media, masterfully creating love and strength even when tension and cultural differences are painfully clear. The film directly addresses the difficulty we have reconciling the good and bad of family and digs deeper, asking people to reflect on their culture, family, and themselves. In this way, it is a bold attempt at reading in between the lines, and opens eyes to the beauty that comes from hidden but universal aspects of family and personal struggle. The Farewell is a triumphant, unforgettable success — see it, and you may discover something new for yourself as well.