Billi is a Chinese-American woman attempting to gain a Guggenheim Fellowship while living in New York City. She, along with her mother and father, had moved to the United States when she was very young, leaving behind their remaining relatives – including her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai. One day, they receive distressing news; Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. However, she herself does not know of her affliction with her sister deciding not to inform her. Using their nephew’s haphazardly planned wedding as an excuse to see Nai Nai one last time, Billi and her family travel to Changchun to surreptitiously bid her farewell.
To a Western audience member, the single strangest aspect of this film’s conflict concerns the diagnosis itself. If a beloved grandmother has mere months to live, how could they even think about keeping her in the dark? Shouldn’t she live out the rest of her days to their fullest? This question is asked by Billi herself, who had grown up in the United States for a majority of her life. The answer highlights the fundamental difference between Western and Eastern society. While the United States forms an individualistic culture, Chinese society is a highly collectivist one. For the sake of the group, all members of Nai Nai’s immediate family must carry the burden for her.
This causes no shortage of awkward situations for everyone involved, and a lot of the drama stems from maintaining plausible deniability. For instance, Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao, has only been dating his girlfriend, Aiko, for a few months. Therefore, Nai Nai’s family claims they’ve known each other for a year. It makes every single visit to the hospital amazingly suspenseful, for you know there is a good chance the façade will crack at even the slightest provocation. When one English-speaking doctor converses with Billi about the truth in front of Nai Nai, the blood of everyone in the room versed in the language turns cold.
What I particularly enjoy about how this conflict is presented is that the narrative doesn’t pick sides. It acknowledges that there is a big difference between these cultures, but doesn’t argue one is inherently more correct than the other. Billi isn’t portrayed as being in the wrong for wanting to tell Nai Nai the truth – and neither is the rest of her family for lying about her illness. Despite frequently visiting the hospital in this film, Nai Nai never learns of her cancer diagnosis. However, despite insisting on keeping her in the dark, you can tell their efforts take their emotional toll on these people. Billi, adhering primarily to Western values, has a particularly difficult time maintaining the masquerade, though Hao Hao doesn’t have it any easier when he breaks down in sorrowful tears during his own wedding.
Despite its superficially dour premise, The Farewell is not all doom and gloom. Lulu Wang’s film has been described as a comedy-drama. Although many lauded contemporary efforts have fallen under the umbrella term, I feel The Farewell stands out as one of the stronger ones. I found that most directors’ attempts to mix comedy and drama at the time were akin to combining incompatible ingredients together in a dish. You would get these fairly serious moments interspliced with jokes that don’t fit the tone at all. In other cases, such as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, the narrative’s inability to commit to one half of the equation or the other resulted in a drama without teeth and a comedy deficient in humor.
Ms. Wang seemed to realize this problem and proceeded to do an excellent job addressing it. How does she accomplish this? The answer is delightfully simple; the comedic moments are of a decidedly dark variety. It turns out that Nai Nai had herself lied to her husband about a similar illness up until his death. When they visit his grave, they hire professional criers – something Billi’s mother, Jian, dismisses as completely ridiculous. They offer the deceased many items, including a pack of cigarettes. One family member objects to this offering, only for the gift-giver to point out the recipient is already dead and that nothing more could happen to him.
There’s even one early joke parodying stereotypical profound Chinese sayings you would hear in classic films. According to Jian, one such saying is “When people get cancer, they die”. Rather than being enlightening, she stated the painstakingly obvious. Then again, this does segue into the family’s justification for refusing to tell Nai Nai the truth, which is to say, the fear brought on by a cancer diagnosis is the true killer. Perhaps one could posit there is something lost in translation? In either case, by marrying this dark, yet paradoxically lighthearted brand of comedy to the serious existential themes running throughout the film, Ms. Wang found a way to have the best of both worlds.
What really ties everything together, however, is the ending. The entire premise of the film is that Nai Nai’s family is desperately attempting to prevent her from learning the truth. The most dramatic scene is when Billi, realizing Nai Nai’s medical records are about to be published, rushes in to prevent her grandmother from seeing them. They are able to give her an altered copy of the results, and Nai Nai concludes from reading it that, despite having shown clear signs of being in bad health throughout the film, she is perfectly fine. Despite this, she gives Billi a red envelope with money and encourages her to spend it as she sees fit. When the family pulls away, she waves goodbye to them before stumbling. Many people would wonder at that point if she knew the entire time and merely allowed her family members to maintain the lie.
Shortly thereafter, footage of Ms. Wang’s grandmother is shown. Normally, this would be the moment in which learn when she died before the director dedicates the film to her memory. It’s a moment that never happens. Instead, the text says that even six years after her diagnosis, Nai Nai is still alive. This moment allows the narrative to escape the confines of the medium and speak on a meta level. As cerebral as fictional twists as can get, they are no match for the mundane ones that occur in real life. All of this time, the audience was led to believe they were witnessing Nai Nai’s final moments. The very premise itself turned out to be a lie, and in a defiance of expectations, the audience was perfectly fine with being swindled.
In many ways, I feel The Farewell manages to capture a certain something two different contemporary films strived for, yet didn’t quite reach. As leading lady Awkwafina starred in both films, the most obvious comparison would be with Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians. Although it was refreshing seeing a Hollywood production driven entirely by an Asian cast, there is no getting around that Mr. Chu’s effort provided audiences with a fairly basic romantic comedy. If you ignore the nationalities and setting, you were left with a paint-by-numbers example of its genre. It made for an enjoyable watch, but not a particularly memorable one. The other comparison is admittedly a little more esoteric, but I also see The Farewell as a superior version of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Both are comedy-dramas that touch upon complicated family dynamics. However, the fatal flaw of Ms. Gerwig’s solo directorial debut was that it vastly overestimated the likability of its two most important characters. This ensured the narrative’s attempts at giving them depth and telling jokes fell flat more often than not. Ms. Wang makes neither of these mistakes. This is a narrative enhanced by its characters’ unique cultural perspective and simply would not have worked had it been subject to intrusive executive studio notes.
In fact, I would honestly go a step further and declare that, as of 2019, she was one of the few directors who used the A24 ethos successfully. Many of her peers and predecessors at A24 went into their work eager to subvert expectations at any given opportunity. It was a very anti-Hollywood approach to filmmaking, but I could tell in many cases, the directors didn’t think more than one step ahead. Why these common Hollywood tropes deserved to be challenged was a question A24 directors often failed to answer. In certain cases, such as Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, the attempt at defying these conventions would backfire so badly, they ended up justifying their rival’s existence.
Ms. Wang, on the other hand, used A24’s auteur-friendly environment to an excellent effect by abjectly refusing to introduce a prominent white character or turn her work into a straight comedy. She knew exactly what kind of film she wanted to make going into her project, possessing a level of focus and earnestness her peers lacked. With its close examination of a family dynamic that encompasses three different countries, The Farewell pans out like a contemporary Yasujirō Ozu film, though Ms. Wang herself drew more direct inspiration from the works of British director Mike Leigh. In either case, The Farewell stands as one of the stronger efforts of 2019, and I could easily recommend it to anyone – even those usually put off by A24’s output. It demonstrates how much one can accomplish with a clear vision and a little sincerity.
Final Score: 8/10