In Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Awkwafina (of Crazy Rich Asians fame) plays Billi, a 20-something, New York-based Chinese-American who’s trying to establish herself as a writer. As the opening scenes make clear, Billi has a tight relationship with her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), an old woman living in China whom Billi affectionately calls “Nai Nai” (Chinese for grandma). Put simply, however, the plot of The Farewell kicks off when Billi and her relatives learn that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
If this were a film about a Western family, Nai Nai would have been informed of this diagnosis, and she probably would have spent the rest of the film bemoaning her fate. But since Nai Nai and her relatives are Chinese, things turn out rather differently. First, instead of telling Nai Nai about the diagnosis, Billi’s relatives choose to conceal it. Second, they hold an impromptu wedding for one of Billi’s cousins (Chen Han) and his girlfriend (Aoi Mizuhara) – an event that’s really just an excuse for all of them to get together and see Nai Nai one last time.
On the surface, this big lie might seem nonsensical and superfluous. In Billi’s eyes, it even borders on the criminal, seeing as it revolves around important information about Nai Nai’s own health. Yet despite Billi’s repeated entreaties, Billi’s relatives categorically refuse to tell Nai Nai the truth. In their eyes, the diagnosis is a “burden” that would prevent Nai Nai from dying in peace – and in a textbook illustration of Confucian notions of family and harmony, they believe it is their obligation to deal with this burden amongst themselves instead.
Among other things, The Farewell is meant to be a film about the complexity and importance of family. In this regard, however, it’s somewhat undermined by its caricatural portrayal of Nai Nai. For much of the film, Nai Nai conforms to the stereotype of the “sweet old lady” – namely, a cute and harmless old woman who alternates between making humorously indiscreet comments (e.g. “I wonder what they do in the bedroom,” “You’re fatter than they said”) and issuing Yoda-esque bits of wisdom. Because of this, the overall depiction of Nai Nai carries a fair amount of condescension, treating her as either the butt of every joke or an object of pity.
In a testament to Wang’s skill, however, the good things about The Farewell more or less make up for this problematic portrayal of Nai Nai. For instance, despite the narrative’s rather grim material, Wang avoids the temptation of making the film overly dark. In a lot of movies about “serious” topics (e.g. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Revenant), it seems like the scenes are designed to be perpetually depressing, as though a greater number of “sad scenes” were an indicator of greater quality. But like Manchester by the Sea, The Farewell mixes scenes of unhappiness with ones of unexpected humor, a fact that testifies to how situations in real life are rarely unequivocally bleak or unequivocally uplifting.
Its mix of comedy and drama aside, however, the main reason why The Farewell works is that it knows its stuff. As a Chinese-American, I can confirm that Wang gives a good depiction of the cultural differences between China and the United States. Like some of Ang Lee’s earliest films, particularly The Wedding Banquet, The Farewell has a perceptive understanding of why Chinese families insist on maintaining a semblance of respectability – and it also recognizes how durable this attachment to respectability is, even among Chinese people who immigrate to places outside of Asia. The Farewell may not be perfect, but when it comes to portraying the inherent tensions in the Chinese-American experience, it’s far and away superior to better-known films like Crazy Rich Asians.