dir: Lulu Wang
The Farewell is such a modest film, such a mostly quiet film that I find it quite amazing that it exists at all. And I’m glad it does. Even more so, for me, the strange premise is one that I probably wouldn’t have been curious about, had I not actually listened to the director telling the story on This American Life about five years ago.
I have listened to thousands of podcasts over the years, whether from This American Life or bunches of other people. I remember very little of any of them, but the story Ms Wang told stayed with me all these years. Not because there was anything that dramatic that occurred within it, or horrible, or shocking. But there was something about how unique the story seemed to be to this family, it never left my consciousness.
So: a Chinese-American woman called Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York. She has a beloved grandma (Zhao Shuzen) that she and everyone naturally calls Nai Nai. This is the second film in as many weeks where one of the main characters was a Nai Nai that I watched. It’s a growing demographic / genre: films about Chinese Grandmas! No, not like that you goddamned perverts!
This one, though, is a much nicer Nai Nai than the other one who falls afoul of the triads for selfish reasons in Lucky Grandma. This Nai Nai faces some serious health issues. Not only that, she faces the trials and tribulations of living in a culture that supports lying to individuals for the supposed good of the collective. If that isn’t a comment on the docility required for living under communist one-party rule, I don’t know what is.
When Billi, after arguing with her parents, finds out that beloved Nai Nai has cancer, that’s a horrible shock. The even bigger shock she has to be confronted with is that none of the family, including the woman’s sons or grandkids, or own sister, will tell her what’s going on.
I cannot emphasise this enough, but apparently this is a true story, and it happens on the regular in China, and it happened to this director’s grandma, and her whole family was complicit in this elaborate charade, which only gets more elaborate as it goes on. See, they have this belief that when someone is of a certain age, telling them the truth about their health conditions could kill them, the shock of it. So instead of telling them that they’re terminal, you tell them they’re fine, the doctors go along with it, and you lie about their treatments, and then you wait for the inevitable, I guess?
The farewell of the title refers to the fact that the expanded family still doesn’t want to tell Nai Nai what’s coming, but they still want to see her before she leaves this mortal coil, so they have to rapidly organise some kind of event so that all the family can get together, but Nai Nai won’t get suspicious. So one of Billi’s cousins who lives in Japan hurriedly gets engaged to his Japanese fiancé, and gives suitable cover for the whole family to get together and say their own personal, private goodbyes in their hearts, presumably for the last time, to Nai Nai.
At no stage does this sit well with Billi. She is sullen and disgruntled about the set up the entire time, always disbelieving that this could be happening, or that anyone could agree with it. Her anger towards her parents is mitigated by the fact that she doesn’t want to go against her dad’s (Tzi Ma) wish to handle it this way, since it’s his mum we’re talking about, which takes precedence over her feelings.
It sounds like an ethical / moral drama, but it’s not really that dry. There are different justifications given by different family members, and people can take a bunch of different positions on the topic, but none of them obviate the fact that while all of them have love for Nai Nai, it’s only Billi that it really bothers that much, but she is in the double bind of not wanting to conform to something everyone needs to conform to in order to work, but also not wanting to be the one to blame for spilling the beans.
This sounds either overly torturous or farcical, but I assure you it’s neither. It’s definitely not a comedy either, I don’t care how people want to classify it as. It’s quietly wrenching, but even then not in an inorganic way. Billi and her mum argue about people expressing emotions, and her mum goes on a rant about how unnecessary and undignified it is when people express their emotions in a gushing or embarrassing manner. But that raises the question of whether the bind Billi finds herself in is that emotional difficulty in maintaining a lie whose purpose is to alleviate the pain of another, the knowledge that someone is terminal, and that if she shifted that burden, so to speak, by telling Nai Nai what’s really up, then it’s no longer hers to bear. So, win for her, crushing defeat for Nai Nai?
In a different conversation with her uncle that lives in Japan, he chastises her for her Western propensity for putting the needs of an individual, being herself, over the needs of the rest of them, in that she would prefer to tell Nai Nai. Thus would she suffer. But by his estimation, the Eastern way is for the group to shoulder the burden, to suffer collectively, for their collective overall good, rather than the good or harm of an individual.
I can’t even begin to come down on a particular side in this argument. As Billi points out during another conversation, which occurs in hospital, when Nai Nai takes herself in complaining that the medicine they’re giving her for her recent “cold” isn’t working anymore, and she speaks to a doctor educated in London in English, which Nai Nai doesn’t know at all, she’s told that this is common, and the Chinese medical profession clearly doesn’t see the ethical dilemma at play.
Even better, since her command of Mandarin is spotty sometimes, she asks for help with getting the word in Mandarin for “illegal”. In other words, all of this nonsense would be illegal in the States, and who could blame them. I don’t know what the Chinese equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath is, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t start with “First, do no harm, unless it’s for the good of the group or the Party.”
It feels like something of a unique situation, for this family, but I guess it’s more common than I would have thought. Of course it’s not the story of the actors involved (with one major exception, being Lulu Wang’s actual great aunt), but it is the director’s story, and she’s found such a great way to tell her Nai Nai’s story, with plenty of humanity and without any cut and dried solutions to this strange situation. There are no villains (other than cancer, which is humanity’s villain) within the family, no easy arguments, no condemnation even if there is friction.
Some of the family members randomly lose their shit during the charade, but I don’t think it’s played for humour or for pathos either. It just is. Billi loves her grandma, Billi misses her childhood certainty, the safety and security she felt as a small child before they moved to the States. She deeply connects her Nai Nai to that time, and beyond the impending loss of a beloved grandparent, there is the fear of losing her connection to the one time where she felt secure, which especially eludes her in her 30s.
One of my favourite conversations in the flick was when the different parts of the family are arguing about China being superior to Japan or America, and everything seeming like a trap because, you know... of where they are. Earlier Billi is asked repeatedly whether America is better than China, or vice versa, to which she keeps having to reply “It’s just different”, to avoid Communist Party officials bursting into the room and arresting her and sending her to a concentration camp along with millions of Uighurs. But with family, the argument is slightly different than fearing ending up at a reeducation camp or worse. One of Billi’s younger cousins, a real piece of shit called Bao, will be sent to the States for college, or university as people who value higher education refer to it as. How then can Bao’s parents keep saying how great everything is in China, and how much better their system is, if their middle class pretentions still compel them to send their kid to the States?
No easy answers, but they do have an embarrassed, queasy look on their faces when they can’t bring themselves to answer.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but they’re mostly subdued and not showy. Awkwafina is maybe best known for kooky performances like in Crazy Rich Asians, but she’s perfectly fine here in a very emotionally controlled performance. There’s real depth in the performance, because the conflicts are more unresolvable than the usual drama, and they all do the job that the story requires.
Nai Nai herself is a delight. There are of course a raft of elements to her performance that are inextricable from culture and Chinese society, but there are plenty of elements that are universal, because we all mostly have mothers, or grandmothers, whatever our relationships are with them. And we have such vast and complicated emotions for these oldies that we love, and the complexities of their last years only get harder to navigate with time, instead of easier.
There are clichés that abound with these kinds of stories, but this flick wisely avoids most of them, instead finding meaningful ways to connect the personal story that Lulu Wang wanted to tell about herself and her family with the audience watching, with our own memories of our mothers and grandmothers, or beloved pops and dads, and what we could have done different, and what we never would change, in those last days, for love or money.
The Farewell. Debilitating for the whole family. But there’s love there, I hope.
8 times I’m still not sure whether the chance to say goodbye is worse than not getting to say goodbye out of 10
“It’s not the cancer that kills them; it’s the fear.” – nah, I’m pretty sure it’s the cancer because that's not how science works – The Farewell