Written and directed by Lulu Wang. A Chinese matriarch is dying, so her family holds a wedding for the family to come home and visit instead of telling her. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes.
Billi (Awkwafina) speaks to her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) almost every day on the phone. While at her parent’s house, she learns her Nai Nai is dying of cancer but doesn’t know. Nai Nai’s sister Little Nai Nai (Hong Lu) takes her to the doctor but intercepts the results to keep her from fear and worry.
Billi’s parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin) explain to Billi it is the Chinese way to keep a happy face around the family. The family has planned for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Han Chen) to get married in order for the family to see Nai Nai before she dies. Billi wants to go; but, her family doesn’t think she can be around Nai Nai without telling her or having a sad face.
Billi shows up to China and surprises everyone. The family plans the wedding while tip-toeing around the real reason they’re all there. Billi maintains the best she can around her grandmother and doesn’t reveal the secret.
The wedding goes off without a hitch and everyone has a great time reminiscing, eating, and drinking. Except for Hao Hao who appears his life just ended by getting married to someone he’s only dated for three months.
Since the wedding is over, it’s time for Billi and her parents to return to New York and their goodbye is bittersweet as they think it’s the last time they will ever see Nai Nai.
Back in New York, Billi gets a new sense of confidence from feeling the strong spirit of her Nai Nai’s wisdom, “it isn’t what you do in life, it’s how you do it.”
What I Liked
I loved the culture difference within the family. Billi and her parents may have moved from China 25 years ago but they also moved away from certain Chinese cultural practices. It’s only when Billi is in China and spends time with family, she learns about being part of a whole, a family, a society, in which they carry the burden of their loved ones. Billi begins to understand it isn’t “lying” so much as it is a way of loving the person and keeping them happy until the end.
The whole family lies about something. Smoking, drinking, getting a fellowship…so many moments with small secrets revealed leaving Billi to wonder what’s true and what isn’t. I like she eventually succumbs to the happiness her family is trying to portray and enjoys herself but she also comes clean to her Nai Nai just before she leaves. When she tells her grandmother she didn’t receive the fellowship, her grandmother gives her wise words to live by as well as encouragement she will succeed in life. I was super happy for this moment as it was a moment of truth for Billi (she hadn’t told her parents yet) and she wanted to be honest with her Nai Nai for one last time.
I loved seeing the Chinese landscape and Billie reaction to it after being gone for so long. It really isn’t much different than being in New York with tall apartment buildings and people walking everywhere; yet, there was a nostalgia present when she moved through the Chinese city as if it has always been a part of her.
The acting done by all felt natural and understated. It could’ve been played more over the top; however, it felt like I was an observer of a real family coming to terms with their grandmother’s impending death. When Billie and her parents are being driven away and I saw Nai Nai waving and crying, I felt sad too knowing it would be the last time they saw her. They were so brave keeping their happy faces and it’s only then, in the car on the way to the airport, they can grieve. Powerful stuff.
What I Wished Was Better
I wouldn’t change a thing.
So often, we make things about ourselves when we should be thinking of the other person. The Farewell is a lesson in loving people and making happy memories instead of dwelling on the inevitable too soon. A wonderful film about family dynamics and loss. Available on Amazon Prime. Watch the trailer below:
Fun Facts: Based on a real lie told to Lulu Wang’s grandmother when they learned she was diagnosed with cancer. Then, while shooting the film, the lie had to be continued about what the movie was about. Eventually, her grandmother found out when the movie finally opened and one the grandmother’s friends told her.