Lulu Wang’s The Farewell Explores the Bond of Family
September 28, 2019 | By Audrey Wang
“Based on an actual lie,” is the first line that flashes across the screen in The Farewell. The entire film is threaded through an enormous lie — however, the film is nothing but the truth. Based on director Lulu Wang’s experience with her grandmother’s diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, the emotions, the story, and the characters are all too real. Wang creates a wholly Asian-American story, an in-between, hyphenated narrative where, despite presenting the lingering questions of where home is and where she belongs, everyone can find a piece of home.
Photo Courtesy of A24
The film opens on Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling artist in New York, chatting on the phone with Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the Mandarin word for paternal grandmother. Nose ring and all, Billi speaks in broken Mandarin while Nai Nai grandmothers her from all the way on the other side of the world. She asks her if she’s wearing enough, and if she’s wearing earrings because apparently “people in New York will rip them out of your ears.” They end the call with an English “I love you,” already leaping into Billi’s division of worlds and establishing their tight-knit relationship.
Eventually, the film reveals Nai Nai’s diagnosis, and the family decides to keep it a secret from her. As an excuse to travel home to Changchun, China and say goodbye, they plan to throw a wedding for Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han). The belief is that “it’s not the cancer that kills you, it’s the fear.” The family collectively agrees to take on the emotional burden of Nai Nai’s diagnosis and forbids Billi to come, saying she is too “emotional, and Nai Nai will know straight away.”
Billi heads to Changchun against her family’s wishes and arrives right in the middle of a family dinner. The immediate shot of Nai Nai joyfully seeing Billi for the first time is bordered by all the worried and distressed faces around her. The shots are wide and precisely blocked by Anna Franquesa Solano, the cinematographer, to fully display “the landscape of family,” according to Wang in an interview with Hyperallergic. As if we are seeing ridges and families in a beautiful landscape, we see the faces of everyone dealing with the impending loss of one of the family’s most beloved members.
A worried Uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) takes Billi back to the hotel from dinner before she can betray any more of the sadness that everyone else is masking as happiness for her cousin. Haibin takes her through the neon-lit streets of Changchun, reminiscent of the rest of China — under construction and rapidly changing. It’s impossible for her to recognize what was her home before she emigrated to America and, between the lack of sleep and seeing her Nai Nai in person, Billi walks in a daze while Haibin repeatedly warns her with statements like “You must not let your emotions betray you… This is very sad for all of us.” She replies, “I know… I know… I know…” Billi knows what’s going on. She just doesn’t have an answer to make it all better and neither does Wang.
But neither Billi nor Wang needs to answer anything, and Wang knows that. She guides the audience through this screwball situation that life throws without taking sides, without making decisions, but rather by exploring the nuances of everyone else in the family. Every single character is reacting in their own personal way shown by Wang’s empathetic direction. Whether its Haibin thanking his mother through tears, Hao Hao unable to speak at dinner, or even Billi’s father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) drinking himself silly, Wang shows how everyone is in on this lie together, yet all suffering individually.
Wang’s dialogue is succinct, but every word is laden with abundant emotion. During the wedding, Billi gives a speech about how nice it is to be with everyone, and how alone she and her parents felt in America. “I have missed you all,” she concludes. Immigrants leave their home for better opportunities for their children, but at the cost of leaving everything else behind. Billi coming back emphasizes the constant longing for a family that might be disappearing, in her version of China that’s also disappearing. It’s easy to forget this entire other world when she’s living in what seems like a separate one. And when Billi gets thrown back in, she doesn’t understand what to do, especially in a situation so sad.
Wang crafts a beautiful story on the diaspora of first-generation Americans yearning for a solid place to call home, and how precious and rare family can be. She doesn’t need to give us a solution because there are no simple solutions. She shows us the dynamics of family, a long-awaited reunion, and love in every shape and form. This is Wang’s way of listening to our problems and repeating “I know,” back to us. Over and over again.