“The Farewell,” is a family comedy about death, cultural differences and generational gaps. Rising star Awkwafina (“Ocean’s 8”) stars as Billi, a flailing post-graduate living in New York City, who flies back to Beijing with her parents to say goodbye to her dying Nai Nai (paternal grandmother in Mandarin). But there’s one catch: No one can tell Nai Nai that she is dying.
In Chinese culture, as well as many others, it is quite common for relatives to not tell a family member of their decline. This practice is seen as a sign of respect in that the person may pass away without anxiety or fear. As the title card of “The Farewell” reads, the movie is based on a “real lie.” Director Lulu Wang traveled back to China with her family and did not inform her grandmother of her terminal cancer diagnosis.
From a Western perspective such as Billi’s, this practice may seem cruel. “The Farewell” enters cinemas in the middle of a Chinese-US trade war, just as Billi is caught between the Chinese culture of which she was born and the United States, where she spent most of her life. It inevitably raises the question: is leaving a family member hooked up to machines in a hospital bed for their last days any less painful?
Under the guise of a fake family wedding, Billi’s extended family flies into Beijing to celebrate Nai Nai’s life as well as bicker over past resentments. The motley crew includes Billi’s Beijing relatives, her uncle’s family who lives in Japan and her cousin’s Japanese girlfriend of three months, otherwise known as the fake bride.
Acrimony simmers beneath the surface of this happy family. Billi’s father and uncle are judged for abandoning their mother to live in foreign countries and family members argue over the superiority of China versus the United States. These arguments ring true to current day international politics, with anti-immigrant sentiments increasing and outsider opinions mistrusted.
But at the heart of “The Farewell” is the love between a grandmother and her grandchild. Billi can do nothing wrong in Nai Nai’s eyes, even though her parents worry about her lack of income and writing success. One of the most touching scenes in “The Farewell” revolves around Tai Chi, as Nai Nai yells “Ha!” and punches the air to release toxins from her body. In the beginning of the film, Billi doubts the effect of the exercises. But after immersing herself in Chinese culture, Billi pays homage to her grandmother and her identity by practicing the exercises in teeming New York City.
“The Farewell” is a solid film, wrought with equally heartwarming and humorous moments. Unlike many culture shock films that rely on cheap stereotypes for laughs, “The Farewell” is nuanced in its depictions of culture. Is this enough to cement “The Farewell” as a brilliant film into the media consciousness? Perhaps. Does “The Farewell” prove that insightful representation is necessary to make a great film? Most definitely.