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Technological advances in the modern world have made it so that the world now seems a lot smaller than it used to be, but not to be forgotten is how big it still really is. Spread across the continents that cover our globe are millions of people living vastly different lives based on different principles and histories. What may seem every day to you or me may seem completely alien and bizarre to someone living just 2000 miles away. What’s key to understand, though, is the underlying thinking and philosophy behind those cultural ways – and that’s what exists at the core of writer/director Lulu Wang’s excellent The Farewell.
The film is a fictionalized take of Wang’s own personal experiences as a Chinese-American, and centers on her proxy Billi (Awkwafina) – to whom we are introduced as a young struggling writer living in New York. She is a very family-oriented woman, regularly visiting her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) who live locally, and calling her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who still lives in China. It’s this closeness that makes it particularly devastating when she learns that Nai Nai has end stage lung cancer and only a few months to live.
The grief strikes immediately, but is made complicated by a discovered catch. While Billi’s entire family knows about Nai Nai’s condition, the one person who doesn’t is Nai Nai – and there are no plans to inform her. Billi discovers that it is customary in China to keep the elderly entirely in the dark about terminal condition, allowing them to live the rest of their lives without the anxiety of knowing about their impending death. Doctors instead inform someone close to them about the situation, and the necessary steps are taken without their knowledge.
A plan is orchestrated to have Nai Nai’s relatives travel to China to celebrate a wedding, but the wedding is actually fake, and the real idea is for everyone to have an opportunity to say goodbye without giving away the truth. Despite her rather dire financial situation, Billi decides that she needs to go on the trip to see her grandmother, all the while wrestling with the complicated ethical dilemma presented by Chinese customs.
The Farewell has a certain expectation that most audiences aren’t going to know about this practice going into the film, and Billi makes for an excellent movie-goer surrogate as she spends most of the moving asking all of the appropriate and important questions about ethics that are spawned by the discovery. Having spent most of her life in America, she is primarily aware of the American way of doing things, and as a result aggressively bridles against the plans for Nai Nai and what seem like violations of her rights as a patient. In the United States, doctors typically provide as much information as possible so that informed decisions can be made, so Chinese doctors doing the exact opposite seems extreme.
What’s truly fascinating about the film, however, are the answers that Billi gets to her questions – which in turn work to add to your perspective and help you gain an understanding of why things are done so differently. While also touching on themes about emigrating families and starting new lives in new places, the conversations that Billi has with her various family members both enlighten and surprise with angles that don’t necessarily immediately spring to mind, and by the end of the story you’ll probably have a completely different take on the issue than when you were first processing it all in the movie’s first act.
It’s a challenging film to pull off given that it’s various conversations about an ethical dilemma that primarily push the story forward, but Lulu Wang artfully pulls it off. Not only is there a particular warmth generated by the emotional family material, accented with a subtle but potent melancholy, the dialogue is both smart and funny without feeling unnatural. You can read that it comes from a personal and passionate place, and the real deep thought about what it all means is palpable as the philosophical questions get deeper and deeper.
It certainly helps that Awkwafina pulls off what can be called a revelatory performance. Thus far in her career she has proven herself particularly capable playing a comedic side character in movies, but her work in The Farewell exposes the fact that she has far more range than what her resume suggests. The background in funny certainly does help, as Billi has a sense of humor and quirks – but what really shines is the dramatic material. Not only is her emotionality powerful just in her grief, but her stress over what to tell her grandmother has you aching right alongside her.
The Farewell is a movie that reminds us of the awesome power of film – not just to tell us fantastical fictional tales, but also help us learn and understand more about our own world. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of work that both spotlights an excellent up-and-coming filmmaker, and an immensely talented emerging star.