'The Farewell' Is a Love Letter to China

‘The Farewell,’ starring Awkwafina, breaches the Chinese-American divide

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhao in "The Farewell."
Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhao in "The Farewell."Credit: Casi Moss/ A24 / AP
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

“The Farewell” deals not so much with the question of whether to inform people diagnosed with cancer about their condition, as with the social and cultural nuances that differentiate between members of the same nation who are separated by immigration. The scriptwriter and director Lulu Wang based her film on an event that occurred in her own family. Its virtue lies in her deft interweaving of the two themes to create a sentimental comedy in which the comic is blended with the melodramatic and the sentimentality is restrained.

The film’s protagonist (caution: spoilers ahead) is Billi (Awkwafina), whose parents immigrated to America from China when she was a girl. Billi lives in a small apartment in Brooklyn and aspires to be a writer. At the start of the film she encounters a professional disappointment, which she conceals from her parents. She is in constant phone contact with Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), her beloved paternal grandmother in China. At the start of the film, Billi is on the phone with her grandmother just before Nai Nai undergoes a CT scan. Billi hears noises from the hospital in the background, but Nai Nai conceals her location from her granddaughter – the first of the concealments that drive the plot. The scan shows that Nai Nai has inoperable stage four lung cancer and has only a few months to live. The doctor does not break the bad news to Nai Nai, revealing it only to her sister (Hong Lu), who shares the news with the rest of the family: with those still in China, with those who live in Japan and with Billi’s parents in New York.

At first, Billi’s mother and father (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) conceal the news of Billi’s grandmother’s illness from her, but she finds out about her grandmother’s serious condition. Her parents decide to make a trip to China to pay a last visit to Nai Nai, but without Billi; in their opinion, Billi’s gloomy expression will reveal to her grandmother the reason for the sudden collective family visit. Furious at this turn of events, Billi musters all her remaining credit to buy a ticket to follow her parents to China.

Indeed, how can the family explain the visit to the energetic, vital grandmother? Nai Nai’s eldest son (Yongbo Jiang), who lives in Japan with his family, quickly arranges for his son, Hao Hao (Han Chen) to marry his Japanese girlfriend of three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), in China. Probably there would not even have been a wedding if not for Nai Nai’s looming death, but Hao Hao doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on around him, and he obeys his family’s request to marry. As for his bride, Aiko doesn’t speak Mandarin, so there’s no danger that she will reveal the truth to Nai Nai. Even though she has a small part, Aiko is the film’s absolute stranger. The viewers don’t know what she thinks about the quick marriage: whether she loves Hao Hao, or is simply happy to have found a man to marry.

To tell or not

The film’s central situation might have given rise to a comedy of errors, but Wang avoids this in order to deal with social and cultural differences brought about by immigration. Billi’s parents have remained steeped in Chinese culture, despite their many years in America, but Billi is far removed from it and is caught in an identity gap between being Chinese, American or – to alleviate the problem – Chinese-American. The crux of this generational difference in the film is seen in Billi’s attitude to concealing from her grandmother the truth about her illness and looming death. The approach in China is to conceal the facts from those who are ill, because fear of the illness and of impending death is liable to be more harmful than the illness itself. Because in China the commonalty is more important than the individual, it is the family’s obligation to free the patient of this fear and take the emotional suffering on itself.

That is the custom in the East, but Billi is fully integrated in the West and believes that Nai Nai has the right to know her condition. Billi has undoubtedly seen American films about terminally ill individuals using their remaining time to find inner peace and realize unfulfilled dreams – which, indeed, depict terminal illness as a privilege. This approach is taking hold not only in America; it can be seen elsewhere in the West, too, including Israel, in the form of media interviews with people who are critically ill or have recovered from a serious illness.

The hub of “The Farewell” is whether Billi will succeed in imparting the ideological difference she embodies to a social and cultural reality in which her beloved grandmother is denied the knowledge that her time is limited. (By the way, the film does not raise the question of how a family should behave if a patient undergoes treatments, so that it is impossible not to inform him of his condition.)

Wang’s film simmers on a low flame, which is also the source of its charm and the empathy it stirs. There aren’t many peaks, and those that exist are part of life’s routine, now including the preparations for the wedding itself, which Nai Nai wishes to be a splendid affair that will impress everyone she knows. The performances ring true in each case, particularly by the actress and rapper Awkwafina, who reveals a moderate side of her colorful and usually provocative personality. Viewers of the film today can hardly avoid thinking about the health crisis China is currently enduring, whose reporting has given rise to questions of factual truth, revelation and concealment. Leave the panic behind when you go to see this film, which delivers its full measure of love for China. No need for masks.

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