In Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina), a woman whose family moved to America from China when she was young, learns that her grandmother Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal cancer, and the whole family is going to China to say goodbye. The catch? The family is reuniting under the guise of a fake wedding, and Nai-Nai doesn’t know she has cancer. The family has decided not to tell her, per Chinese tradition. Billi goes and wrestles with returning to her home country and the grief that she must repress.
The Farewell is a slow, contemplative film that is occasionally funny but mostly content with simply watching its characters. There is very little story, very little change within the characters, and no clear judgments on the central ethical question of whether it is wrong to lie to Nai-Nai about her condition.
Initially, this bothered me. My American sensibilities were frustrated with Billi’s lack of a character arc, the way the central problem isn’t “solved,” and how the film seems to emphasize all the wrong points. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to appreciate the film for what it is, which is two things: First, it is a film about grief, and grief is not something that is convenient, timely, concise, or narratively satisfying. Second, The Farewell is a movie less about its characters and more about its environment and sense of place.
The first point. Billi is our protagonist in the loosest sense. We follow her around and she makes choices that change the course of the story, which makes her the main character. But she also doesn’t feel much like a protagonist because we don’t know much about her outside of her grief, and she doesn’t change (at least externally) over the course of the film. She is our point of view character, but less so as an individual and more so as a representative of her family. This, in and of itself, explores the theme of the American Individual vs. the Chinese Collective cultural mindset and, with that in mind, it is a less frustrating choice.
Awkwafina does nice work here, but she doesn’t have a lot to do and doesn’t quite get across any indication that Billi has a rich inner life that we simply aren’t privy to. Because we know so little about Billi outside of her grief, it is hard to get a sense of her character or relate to her. But isn’t that the thing about grief? It can be so consuming that the grief feels like our whole identity and the only thing people can see in us. It is so overwhelming that our natural selves feel lost within it. Again, with that in mind, Billi’s character, and the film’s tone overall, is a less frustrating choice.
What may have helped the film have higher stakes and have a more dynamic protagonist would have been to make Billi the one being coerced into the fake marriage. We would still have the outsider status and the central set-up, but there would have been more of a plot and more for Billi to proactively do than wander around the film and talk to various characters.
But maybe that would have been too much like Crazy Rich Asians and too easy of a set-up. It would have also weakened the film’s focus on grief. And, after all, The Farewell is invested in its sense of place, and having wedding hijinks would distract from that.
This sense of place, the atmosphere, is not only investigated in the physical environment of China, but also in the domestic settings. This film captures, scarily so, what it feels like to be at a family reunion. Maybe not for every family, but I had a family reunion about a month ago, and throughout the film I kept being reminded of it. The joy of the grandmother to have everyone under the same roof. The sitting around the table for hours. Various family members sneaking off to seek privacy and talk in hushed whispers. Taking pictures. Reading through old letters and visiting graves and collectively remembering those we’ve lost along the way. Looking around and wondering what it means that these people are tied into your DNA, yet you may know little to nothing about them.
Ultimately, The Farewell is not interested in debating the ethics of such a lie. This is not a movie about mind-games and philosophical puzzles. It’s about presence, and it’s a clear reminder that every family, no matter cultural differences, is a family, and I think anyone will be able to see themselves in Billi’s family. So despite some small complaints, I think The Farewell is a beautiful film that is the perfect alternative to, say, Hobbs and Shaw, for your summer movie-watching.