The Farewell is an incredibly specific movie. Most of the action takes place in Changchun, an industrial city of nearly eight million people in Julin, a province of China sandwiched between North Korea and Russia, and the vast majority of the dialogue is in Mandarin. Based on director Lulu Wang’s own family story, it revels in personal details — the taste of her grandmother’s homemade food; the sound of the leaves rustling around her grandfather’s grave (which she used as a true-to-life location in the film); the colorful chaos of her cousin’s wedding hall. And yet, what makes The Farewell so unbelievably moving is that, through that very specificity, it touches on fundamentally universal themes: the sorrow associated with the impending loss of a relative; the pull of nostalgia for childhood; and the bittersweet relief and confusing guilt of an immigrant’s return to their native country, after years spent assimilating abroad.
Awkwafina (best-known for comic supporting roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8) plays Billi, a Chinese-born, American-raised struggling writer, who finds out that her beloved paternal grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou, a total delight) has been diagnosed with a lethal cancer back in China. To her great confusion, Billi’s parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma, both powerful) reveal that the family has decided to keep Nai Nai in the dark about her condition. As her mom bluntly puts it: “Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die.” Instead of rushing over for a tearful and cathartic American-style goodbye, they’re using a cousin’s hastily planned wedding as an excuse to get the whole family together, and see Nai Nai one last time.
Wang explores the dichotomy between East and West through Billi as she struggles with her own anxieties and grief in the face of her family’s more traditional Chinese approach, emphasizing the good of the collective. But however outlandish or cruel the family’s approach may initially seem to Billi, the film passes no judgment, on them or on her. Wang isn’t asking us to take a side, but rather, that we try to understand where each faction is coming from.
Awkwafina’s performance is understated but potent. Her slow, languid smile as she revels in Nai Nai’s exuberance and affection is tempered with the look in her eyes, a constant reminder of the grief underneath. No matter what she’s doing — eating, shopping, attending a hilarious wedding photoshoot — you can feel her tense up when she remembers why she’s there in the first place.
But slowly, she — and we, the audience — start to empathize with the colorful cast of characters that make up the family: Little Nai Nai (Wang’s real-life great aunt, Hong Lu), her grandmother’s sister who has devoted years of her life to care for her; Billi’s mom Jian (Lin), who calmly tells her daughter that just because she doesn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve doesn’t mean she doesn’t have any; her father, Haiyan (Ma), who turns to drinking in an effort to cope; her uncle (Yongbo Jiang), who has volunteered his son, HaoHao (Han Chen) and his Japanese girlfriend for the mock wedding.
Wang’s script, based on the events she initially described in a 2016 episode of This American Life, is equal parts bold, blunt, and heartfelt. She doesn’t shy away from hard truths, and defuses potential melodrama with a dark, cutting humor that plays on the absurdity of certain situations. Still, she isn’t afraid to provoke feeling— I sobbed repeatedly in the dark of the screening room I saw it in, grateful to be solo to revel in this cathartic coming to terms with anxieties and fears I carry about my own grandparents.
Billi’s return to China is marked by a quest for familiarity, and the puzzling realization that she might be losing the one strong tie she has to her homeland. For many the death of a grandparent is the death of one’s childhood, and in Billi’s case, her last connection to a place that has evolved beyond her memories. The neighborhood she once lived in no longer exists, and she searches in vain for landmarks she can connect to. Even her connection to her native language is tenuous — like Awkwafina herself, Billi’s Mandarin is rusty, and the subject of many family jokes. But it’s also a sore spot for someone who feels like they don’t quite belong — too Chinese for America, and too American for China.
Cinematographer Anna Franquesa and production designer Yong Ok Lee do a superb job of setting the mood with careful attention to detail. Nai Nai’s apartment, for example, is full of portraits of her grandchildren, as she too tries to connect with them from a distance. One item I particularly loved was the framed portrait of a young Nai Nai with her husband, dressed in revolutionary garb, a hint of an adventurous past distinct from her identity as Billi’s grandmother. Although Billi is ever surrounded — by her family at home, throngs of crowds in the streets, the harsh neon lighting that creeps into her hotel room— one can nonetheless feel her loneliness during this emotional journey.
The ending doesn’t provide the kind of Hollywood closure we’re used to. There’s no teary confrontation, no grand declarations — just simple, quiet moments that are devastating precisely because they feel real. And by the time the credits start rolling, you might find your tears follow, if they haven't already.