Film review: The Farewell
The importance of cultural maintenance is on full display in Lulu Wang’s beautiful dramedy.
There is a line in Lulu Wang’s (second) feature adaptation of a story she told in 2016 on NPR’s This American Life podcast that succinctly encapsulates the foundation of many immigrants’ communities: ‘In the East, one’s life is part of a whole: Family. Society.’ This line is delivered by Billi’s (Awkwafina) uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) as a rebuttal to her growing willingness to reveal the real reason why her grandmother’s, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), family have all conveniently come to visit her at the same time. Amidst the back-and-forth this dialogue serves as a demonstration of the cultural divide that the film is, in part, set against. Along with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), Billi moved to America at the age of six, and is now a writer with no prospects living in Brooklyn, so her reluctance to accept such tradition seems reasonable as her American sensibilities collide with her Chinese culture signifying the cultural conflict several immigrant children in the West face whilst evolving within two worlds.
As for the visit: “The Farewell” tells the story of Billi’s ailing grandmother who was recently diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; however, Nai Nai’s sister (played by) has not told her because it is Chinese tradition — although not practised by all — to not reveal cancer diagnosis to family members because according to Confucianism, family members deem it as their responsibility to make medical decisions when a patient is diagnosed with a form of cancer, and so depending on the situation they will decide whether to instruct the doctor to withhold the information entirely or dilute the severity in their description. Her uncle Haibin reinforces this in the aforementioned scene, “It’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her,” he says. Unlike in the West where direct truth is the norm. However, we are told at the beginning that the film is based on a “big lie”; it’s the easing into a cultural norm where innocent deployment of controlled emotions in the form of small lies, or ‘white lies’, that has sustained relationships within families for centuries that is compelling.
An evocative display of the human condition focusing on grief and confronting the inevitable. Paced sublimely, Wang’s profound screenplay is filled with moments of comedy contrasted by ones of exploration and realisation; unravelling against Alex Weston’s captivating score. Succinctly demonstrating the cultural differences between the East and West in regard to family, a demonstration that’s (personally, so emotionally compelling that I cried) whilst ensuring both sides are assessed; the result: A collection of perspectives, ultimately settling with the established one that has sustained their way of life, reinforcing the necessity of cultural maintenance. The virtuosity of “The Farewell”, for me, is the balance it strikes between a personal story yet simultaneously being expansive enough to be relative to almost everyone; partly, thanks to Awkwafina’s aching portrayal of an eastern expat raised in the West grappling with the intersection of her culture and her upbringing.