By Guest Contributor: Claudia Vaughan
Editor’s Note: Please note that this post may contain minor spoilers for the film, “The Farewell”.
The Farewell, A24’s latest film from Chinese-American director Lulu Wang, hit theaters earlier this month, packing a soft but powerful punch. At its core, the film examines what it means to be a caring, accountable family member – AND whether that can ever include being untruthful with your loved ones. The opening scene cheekily notes that the story is “based on an actual lie,” borrowing from real events in Wang’s own life centered around her family’s decision to hide news of her grandmother Nai Nai’s terminal cancer from her. (The story originally ran as an episode of This American Life before Wang began developing it as a feature).
The choice not to inform an elderly relative of his/her illness is commonplace in some Asian cultures, as relatives receive the diagnosis from the doctor first and then choose whether that information is actually shared with the patient. Oftentimes it is not, as is the case in The Farewell. Because of the family’s decision to keep Nai Nai’s diagnosis a secret from her, The Farewell quickly becomes a story of what can and cannot be said – both literally, due to language barriers, and figuratively, in terms of what information can be divulged to whom.
One might even say that language becomes a character in its own right, proving to be a source of power – the more of it you have, the more information you accumulate, but, on the other hand, the more responsibility you must then personally bear.
The film’s main character, Billi (portrayed by a wonderfully surprising and more serious than ever Awkwafina) has spent most of her childhood in the United States, having moved away from China when she was only six. Billi feels that to keep this information hidden from Nai Nai is not only illegal (by American standards, anyway), but also downright immoral. Her primary goal is to convince her relatives that keeping Nai Nai in the dark is wrong – something which she never achieves. This makes for an interesting (if not unusual) premise, as so much of Billi’s struggle becomes purely internal; we see her physically and emotionally grappling with this decision that has been forced upon her. She is pained from all that she wants to say but is unable to.
The entire extended family has been gathered back in China under the pretense of Billi’s cousin Haohao’s marriage, providing a tidy excuse for an otherwise sudden reunion at Nai Nai’s. A credit to her newfound drama chops, actress Akwafina gives a stunning non-vocal performance in these group scenes. In an overall quiet film (Billi’s family doesn’t shout so much as make passive aggressive jabs at each other across their Lazy Susan dinner table), some of the most distressing moments are the scenes where Billi contorts her face so as not to appear sad, lest she cry and give away her entire family’s facade.
This is not to say that Billi’s other relatives do not struggle keeping the secret, but they have a greater sense of purpose for their doing so. The film makes a point of distinguishing the cultural differences between the way family matters are treated in the East versus the West. In one of the most subtle yet poignant scenes, Billi’s uncle Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) gently but firmly lectures her on how Westerners are raised to think for themselves, frequently making them selfish in their decision making. In Haibin’s mind, Billi only desires to tell Nai Nai she is sick because doing so would unburden Billi and make her feel better about herself. In traditional Chinese culture, he notes, it is the family, the whole, that matters most, and by shouldering this secret, so too do they share in its responsibility. It is best to let Nai Nai live out the rest of her days in a happy oblivion, and anyone who truly loves her should understand this. Billi agrees to keep quiet, but her conscience is no more resolved than when she began.
The majority of the film is in Mandarin, making it A24’s first film primarily in a foreign language (excluding Menashe, a 2017 acquisition primarily in Yiddish), and its first film to feature a fully Asian cast. The film could work no other way – it would make little sense for a story about a language barrier to be fully translated to English. What’s more, the play with language also allows the story to move deftly between its funny moments and its darker ones; the fact that Billi’s Mandarin is rusty at best and that Nai Nai doesn’t speak English makes for many humorous malentendus between the characters.
For instance, when Nai Nai goes for a check-up accompanied by her family, they discover that the young doctor helping them studied in the United States and speaks English. This gives Billi the opportunity to confront him in front of her relatives about whether it seems right that they should hide the true diagnosis from her. The doctor is very candid and admits he too had an elderly relative from whom they kept similar information, and because of it she was able to die happily, unaware of what little time she had left. Before Billi has time to react, though, Nai Nai interjects, oblivious to the subject of their conversation, and asks the doctor if he is married, seeing his English-speaking abilities as a promising prospect for her American granddaughter (and sending Billi from sorrowful to mortified in mere seconds).
The Farewell is special in the way it demonstrates how language can be used a tool for good just as easily as for harm. It is true that Billi ultimately stays silent about the diagnosis, honoring her family’s choice and maintaining the carefully crafted sense of peace they’ve established. However, this is not to say that she gives up on her relationship with Nai Nai altogether – far from it.
Instead, there is a much joy to be found in the quality time she spends with her ever-ebullient grandmother, bonding over food (Nai Nai force feeds a sullen Billi in one memorable scene) and performing Tai Chi in the apartment courtyard together, Nai Nai assuring a skeptical Billi that the physical movements will expel the negativity from her life. It is in these moments where Nai Nai comforts and provides for her granddaughter that we see how words themselves are not so important after all: when it comes to family, irregardless of language, we will always find a way to express our affection to those we love.
Claudia Vaughan is an entertainment writer and lover of all things TV and film. Originally from Chicago, she currently resides in Los Angeles and is most interested in examining diversity and representation within the entertainment industry, especially for Asians and Asian Americans. In her spare time, she enjoys boxing, coordinating a women’s book club, and spending quality time with her cat, Jet.
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