Exploring the dichotomy between East and West, Lulu Wang composes a beautifully poignant and heartbreaking story rooted in complex family dynamics and rich tradition in her second film “The Farewell.” This work is “based on an actual lie,” drawing truth from writer-director Wang’s own life. Although “The Farewell” is permeated with lies, from an orchestrated wedding to altered test results, this film does not fail to reveal universal truths about the human condition.
The film opens with Billi (Awkwafina) walking through the streets of New York City while talking on the phone with her beloved Nai Nai, the Chinese word for grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen). Billi and Nai Nai share a casual conversation in Mandarin, exchanging comments about the weather and each others’ whereabouts. As Billi speaks with her Nai Nai, she effortlessly switches languages from Mandarin to English when engaging in casual banter with a protester.
“I enjoyed the transnational nature of the film. This is something more and more people are experiencing living in two different cultures,” professor Adrienne Tien of the American Studies department said. “I saw in Billi the inhabiting of two different worlds.”
Up until this point in Billi’s life, her cultural identities have coexisted, enabling her to connect with her Nai Nai back in the northern Chinese city of Changchun and fellow Americans in New York City. However, Billi’s transnational identity is shaken when she receives the grim news that Nai Nai has terminal cancer, and her family has decided to keep this information a secret from the dying matriarch.
In order to properly bid farewell to this monumental figure, the family plans a wedding in which Billi’s cousin will marry his Japanese girlfriend, serving as a funeral of some sorts. Billi is vexed by the secrecy of the whole matter, for she cannot fathom why anyone would withhold this secret from their family member. She believes this act is unethical, and the secret forces Billi to carry a burden and to conceal her true feelings behind a forced smile. Wang artfully turns Billi’s frustrations into a larger discussion about cultural clashes between the East and the West.
Billi’s relatives attempt to make her understand their rationale for secrecy, explaining that the East focuses on the family while the West is solely about the individual. Billi already understands these conventional differences, but can no longer conflate her two identities into one as she did before. Wang’s subtle approach to cultural differences does not force viewers to pick sides, allowing the audience to wrestle with this dilemma throughout the film.
Although “The Farewell” is centered around Nai Nai’s diagnosis, the heart of the film lies in the relationship between Billi and her grandmother. Wang portrays the unique bond between these two individuals through sarcastic and lighthearted scenes like Nai Nai’s attempt to teach Billi her exuberant daily exercise routine. These hilarious moments provide comic relief to the serious tone of the film.
“I really love the relationship between Billi and her grandmother. She is able to talk to her grandmother about so many different things,” Meghan Lee* (first year) said. “Their relationship is so wholesome and fun. It reminded me of my relationship with my own grandmother.”
Wang does not shy away from depicting intimate conversations between Billi and Nai Nai, showing the depth of their relationship. The scene in which Billi hugs her Nai Nai before heading to the airport is truly heart-wrenching. Billi knows this is the last time she will ever see her Nai Nai, yet her grandmother believes this is just an ordinary farewell.
This charming film simultaneously captures the raw emotions of grief, joy and empathy, culminating together to create a thought-provoking masterpiece. Wang’s intentional presentation of dualities in the film creates a sense of yin and yang.
Receiving the recognition it justly deserves, “The Farewell” succeeded in the box office, even topping “Avengers: Endgame”‘s per-theater average. With awards season around the corner, “The Farewell” is receiving quite the buzz. Awkwafina’s stunningly nuanced performance and Wang’s artistic vision could result in a possible nomination for best leading actress, director, and picture.
“In Hollywood, very rarely do Asian Americans appear. But I did notice elsewhere Asian Americans are thriving as poets, authors, and musicians,” Erin Kim (first year) said. “Basically, there are Asian Americans thriving in places where they can’t be seen, but where Asian Americans are visually depicted, like in film, they aren’t there.”
If Awkwafina were to be nominated for this accolade, it would mark the first time an East Asian actress has competed for this award. “The Farewell” not only signifies a major breakout for Awkwafina and Wang, but ushers in a new era of Asian American representation in Hollywood.
*Meghan Lee is a photographer and member of the communications team for The Occidental.