Billi is a young Chinese-American, portrayed by Golden Globe winner Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians), who is an aspiring writer residing in New York. She is struggling financially and her career, as a writer, is also not going as planned, having recently been turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Fairly early into the film she learns that her beloved grandmother, the loving, funny, but also acerbic, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of cancer. Billi, as any loving grandchild would, wants to spend time with her grandmother, who lives in China, before she passes away, but if she does, she has to go along with a plan formulated by her family.
As it turns out, Nai Nai, doesn’t know she’s dying, and the family aren’t eager to let her know. In fact, they want to keep it from her, so while everyone wants to, in essence, say goodbye to Nai Nai, the family members come up with a ruse. At the center of the fictional story is Hao Hao (Han Chen), who is supposedly getting married to his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who he’s been dating for a short time. The wedding is the reason behind everyone traveling to China, so they can all be together as a family one last time. Nai Nai, wants the wedding to be wonderful, so she goes about putting all of her efforts into planning the event.
Billi’s parents, Lu Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan, (Tzi Ma) don’t want Billi to go to China; they advise against her making the trip. Billi’s parents believe that she will not be able to keep her emotions in check, and that she will wind up telling Nai Nai the truth about her illness. Billi doesn’t listen, and uses what money she has to purchase a plane ticket, and make her way to Changchun, China where Nai Nai lives.
Billi feels overwhelmed when she arrives in Changchun, understandably saddened at the impending loss of her grandmother. Her facial expressions and poor posture threaten to give her away at the outset; she appears as if she’s come to attend a death vigil, as opposed to a celebratory occasion. Billi learns, however, that it is customary in China, not to inform elder loved ones of a terminal medical diagnosis, so as not to have them fret with fear through their last days of life. Doctors will instead inform a close family member, so preparations can be made for the inevitable.
Billi was brought to America as a young child, and therefore, is not familiar with many traditional Chinese customs. While she is proud of her Chinese heritage and loves her family, she thinks more along the lines of an American. Billi’s mindset is that Nai Nai is being denied her right to know about her health. Awkwafina and Zhao share wonderful onscreen chemistry. In fact, the entire cast are competent in their roles, delivering believable performances.
The film, for the most part, explores the ethics of deception that the collective family is perpetrating against Nai Nai, but never passes a judgment, nor does it become too sentimental. Instead the viewer is left to decide who better handles the situation. Are those of us residing in the west, who normally expect a doctor to inform us as to exactly what medical condition we’re dealing with, as well as laying out all of the possible treatments and potential outcomes, in the right? Can there be something to be said for those in the east, who opt not to worry a loved one, when the situation has gone beyond treatment, so they can live out their final days, as best as possible, without constant anxiety?
“The Farewell” premiered on January 25, 2019 at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie was written and directed by BAFTA nominee Lulu Wang (Posthumous). Comprised of the genres of comedy and drama, the film has a runtime of 100 minutes. Wang based the film on her own personal experience dealing with the death of her grandmother. The movie begins with the words “Based on an actual lie.”
In closing, with this film, Awkwafina proves beyond any doubt, that she can do more than comedy. She presented a vulnerability on screen that comes across as completely genuine. Zhao, a famous actress in her native China, also gives a memorable performance as the grandmother. Zaho’s character may have a big mouth at times, but, as viewers will recognize, she has a huge heart, and that anything critical she says, is not out of malice, but instead, out of love. Wang is an up and coming director, and I look forward to seeing where her career takes her. Although she got shut out of any awards this past year, I don’t see that remaining the case for her in the future, if she continues to produce work of such high quality. For viewers who don’t mind a slow moving, yet entertaining and impactful film, this is a movie I highly recommend.