The Farewell (2019)

A moving story of a granddaughter, raised in America, who is torn between two beliefs and two cultures when seniors in her family in China decide to keep her grandmother’s terminal illness a secret

2/18/20244 min read

Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin and Chen Han with others in 'The Farewell'
Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin and Chen Han with others in 'The Farewell'

English, Mandarin, 96 minutes, 2019

Director: Lulu Wang

Cast: Awkwafina, Zhao Shu-zhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Chen Han, Jiang Yongbo

Awards: Won Best Actress (Awkwafina), and Nominated for ‘Best Foreign Language’ Film, Golden Globe Awards, 2020; Nominated for ‘Best Film not in English Language’, BAFTA Awards, 2020; Won Best Feature and Best Supporting Female Actor (Zhao Shu-zhen), Independent Spirit Awards, 2020; Won Best Actress (Awkwafina), Gotham Awards, 2019; Won ‘Directors to Watch Award’ Palm Springs International Film Festival, 2019

Frankly, I expected more. The plot had so much potential to offer. A strong old lady is diagnosed with fourth stage lung cancer. Nobody tells her and family feels it is right that way. The Chinese origin families of two brothers settled in America and Japan come back to China to visit her with an excuse that one of her grandson, now living in Japan, is getting married to a Japanese girl. Another headstrong granddaughter, who has spent her formative years in America believes the family should tell her but everyone thinks otherwise leading to her constant turmoil of whether to tell Grandma or not. The plot itself offers many such probable situations which could have been used to create a poignant commentary on life. But alas, the family goes to China, speaks less, eats a lot, finishes the marriage and comes back- a plain Jane straight story.

Imagine the tightly knit Chinese society - Neighbors knowing each other, relatives visiting each other much often and friends calling every now and then. Amidst such bustling scenario, there was a chance of a slip up by some cousin, someone getting emotional getting noticed by a close relative and enquiring what is wrong, or slip up at hospital because doctors and nurses keep changing and then the false façade being put up by everyone would be tested. Wouldn’t it be engrossing and realistic? Or, for that matter even the granddaughter could have rebelled as that would be justified because of her American upbringing. But nothing of that sort happens and we are left with a film cruising at forty kmph on an expressway.

Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in New York, the granddaughter is too much attached to her ailing Nanny, Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen) in Changchun, China. Her parents too live in New York but in different house. Billi talks to her grandmother more often and has fond memories from childhood. She discovers, as the entire family that Nai Nai is diagnosed with fourth stage lung cancer and it has been decided by elders that they shouldn’t tell her. Doctors expect her to live for three months. Billie’s parents fly to China but advise her against coming, fearing she would not be able to control her emotions in front of Granny. But Billi lands nevertheless and obviously granny is too happy to see her. There is her uncle’s family too who is now settled in Japan. They family has gathered with an excuse that uncle’s son is getting married. Billie’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) is getting married to a Japanese girl and entire family sees this as their last chance to be together with Nai Nai. Both the families stay at a nearby hotel.

Billi is met with resistance from the rest of the family when she tells them she feels Granny should be told about her condition. Throughout her stay in China, she is in constant turmoil and even talks to doctor about it once when he is visiting for a check up. Her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) explains to her one night that by not letting her know about her illness the family is collectively bearing the emotional burden. If the news is told to her, she and family both will suffer which won’t do any good. He reasons that in western countries people live independently and think about themselves leading to an individualistic society but eastern countries are not like that.

On the day of the marriage, Haibin, as an elder brother thanks everyone for coming to marriage and then thanks her mother breaking down in the process. Hao Hao, the groom too breaks down but Nai Nai doesn’t suspect anything and cheerfully poses for family photograph scolding Hao Hao about why he is crying on such occasion. Marriage done, test results altered and manipulated to show Granny that she is fine, family and Billi in particular returns to New York with heavy heart. Billi keeps her word of not letting Nai Nai know of her illness.

One of the film's notable features lies in its portrayal of the intricate dynamics within the family. From the loving yet pragmatic matriarch Nai Nai, played to perfection by Zhao Shu-zhen, to the well-meaning but conflicted relatives, each character is imbued with depth and nuance, making them feel like real people grappling with real emotions.

Awkwafina delivers a career-defining performance that showcases her versatility as an actress. Her portrayal of Billi is nuanced and heartfelt, capturing the character's inner turmoil and resilience with remarkable sincerity. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin too shine through their performances as Billi’s parents.

About the director, Lulu Wang

Born in February, 1983 in Beijing, Lulu too is an Chinese born American filmmaker like the protagonist Billi of ‘The Farewell’, her present film. Her father was a diplomat and her mother was cultural critic and editor of ‘Beijing Literary Gazette’. She migrated to Miami, US at the age of six years as her father was pursuing PhD at University of Miami.

Wong graduated from New World School of Arts, Boston College in 2005 with a double major in literature and music. While in college she got interested in films and did two film production courses. In 2005 she won ‘Best Beginning film Award’ at Boston College Baldwin Awards for her short film ‘storyteller’ which she made with Tony Hale, a fellow student at Boston college. After making few student short films and documentaries Wang moved to Hollywood in 2007.

She made her first full length feature film ‘Posthumous’ in 2014. Set in Berlin, this American- German co production was an interesting film in which an artist realizes his paintings are worth more after he is wrongly reported as dead. The film premiered that year at Zurich Film festival.

Her second feature, which is her present film, was premiered at Sundance film festival in 2019. This is reported as a semi auto biographical film since Wang’s family too had to set up a wedding as a pretense to cover her own grandmother’s illness. For the same reason, film opens with a caveat, “Based on an Actual lie”. The film received rave reviews at Sundance and later won many awards as listed above.