"Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die," Billi's (Awkwafina) mom tells her, as the family gathers in the master bedroom.
Billi's parents are explaining their reasoning for not telling her nai nai (a term for “grandmother,” in Mandarin) that she’s been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. It's a common decision for those living in China, meant to spare the elderly from unnecessary worry and suffering, but Billi—a Chinese-born American immigrant—is troubled by the morality of it. And the situation is made worse when Billi learns she isn't even invited to a family reunion in China (arranged under the guise of a shotgun wedding between a cousin and his girlfriend of three months) because her parents are afraid she'll spoil the secret.
This tension is one of the first of dozens of relatable cultural touchpoints awaiting Asian American viewers of the film, especially those with immigrant parents who have long learned that getting by requires two completely different sets of rules: one for home life, and one for assimilating. Director Lulu Wang is a Chinese-born American immigrant, and The Farewell is based off of a story from her own life, originally told in an episode of This American Life. Billi is a fictionalized version of Wang herself.
The Farewell is also the latest addition to the recent, growing wave of Asian-American-centered films gaining traction in the US. While To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Always Be My Maybe were both direct-to-Netflix rom com dessert, and Crazy Rich Asians portrayed a fantastical, luxurious love story that tackled some deeper topics within immigrant identity, The Farewell is serving something completely new; it’s a down-to-Earth portrayal of the differences between being Asian and being Asian American, using the familiar format of "indie family dramedy" to make these nuanced themes legible to anyone watching.
When Billi arrives in China, she's immediately a fish out of water, overwhelmed by a combination of the foreign and the familiar as someone who was born in China but came to the U.S. at a very young age. This is never an easy process; going back to the "homeland"—the place of your ethnic heritage—is like balancing on a razor's edge. Imagine the most painful nostalgia, the memory of a place or person that does not exist anymore. Now, picture that sensation of dislocation as the foundation of your identity. At home in the United States, you are a perpetual foreigner, someone who can never fully fit the idea of an "American"—which is to say, a white person. At the same time, Chinese culture is inaccessible to you, as foreign as the ability to fully assimilate to whiteness, because you have not grown up in it.
Adapting requires constant attention and energy, and the film evokes the exhaustion of code switching. Billi must transform from the solitary, isolated person she is in the grungier streets of New York, where she lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment, to someone who can thrive in a crowded room of family members, each ladeling a different food item onto her already overflowing plate. She must learn to fake ease in speaking entirely in Mandarin, though it's clearly effortful for her and does not "sound like a native Chinese-speaking person," director Lulu Wang explained.
On top of this struggle to fit in, there are all of the emotions that come with withholding a big secret. One of Billi's only remaining connections to her estranged culture is terminally ill, and she has no recourse to tell her nai nai without alienating other family members. Grief pops up unbidden—it's threaded through the film like a pair of shoelaces. When Billi has a cupping session—a Chinese medicinal practice that involves painfully hot cups drawing blood to the surface of the skin with the goal of clearing toxins—on a spa day, she asks a family member whether her nai nai should have the chance to say "goodbye." She's told her nai nai's mood will be "spoiled" should she say something. This withholding of information—a sense of emotional sacrifice and quietude in the face of impermanence, pain, and certain death—is a definitive aspect of Chinese culture.
Where The Farewell excels most is in making Billi’s nuanced, navigation of these cultural differences legible to all viewers, even those who are not immigrants or have never had a similar experience. Part of this is thanks to the film's patient sense of payoff—it takes a number of family meals to reveal the subtle conversational dynamics between her relatives. Some of the humor relies on notes that are aimed specifically at Asian Americans; while waiting for her nai nai's newest X-Rays, Billi converses with the English-speaking doctor about her grandma's condition. Nai nai cannot understand English, but nonetheless asks the doctor if he's single, suggesting that he might a good match for Billi. In any other film, this scene would angle Chinese culture as a punchline, but in the context of this film’s development and framing, we instead get to enjoy this as a moment of in-group humor.
But this legibility is also thanks to Wang's commitment to honoring her Chinese family's perspective, rather than allowing Billi's more American point of view to drive the film completely. "There are a lot of things, in hindsight, I got to explore that I didn't get to in real life," Wang explained to VICE. "I come into the movie from Billi's perspective of ‘this is wrong, this is wrong’—I wanted to tell her the truth, and she deserves to know the truth. But that isn't an interesting movie. I needed to show the other side of it. And in order to do that, I myself had to better understand the other side. It was also the only way I could respect my family by making this movie—really understanding their perspective."
As a result, The Farewell isn’t afraid to spell out the differences in American and Chinese culture explicitly, like in a scene in which her uncle tells her they aren't "hurting" her nai nai by withholding her diagnosis, but instead "bearing the emotional burden for her." This balance makes The Farewell both a beautiful rendering of the Asian diaspora and a universally appealing family drama.
All families are inscrutable in their own ways, and have their own forms of internal culture. It's rare for a film to be able to telegraph just one of these ideas—and The Farewell stunningly achieves both.
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