Sometimes the hardest goodbyes are the ones you never get to say. Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is a semi-autobiographical exploration of familial expectations and the pressure to keep up appearances amidst personal tragedy. The story is told from the perspective of a first-generation Chinese-American woman grappling with both the stability of her future, and the weight of the past she’s left behind.
Billi (Awkwafina), a writer living in Brooklyn, suddenly receives the crushing news that her beloved grandmother has terminal lung cancer. Having moved from China to New York with her parents at the age of six, Billi rarely sees her grandmother, but cherishes their relationship maintained through affectionate phone calls. To Billi’s horror, her parents admit that they are travelling to China without her, because the family has decided to lie to Nai Nai about her illness for the sake of her happiness. In their words – “it’s not the cancer that kills you, it’s the fear.” Bitter that she is disregarded as too emotional to maintain the façade, Billi books her own flight to China to join her family for her cousin’s wedding; an elaborate ruse to get the family together again for the first time in decades.
The Farewell is a perfect blend of dark comedy and sobering drama; Billi’s return to China results in a multitude of social and cultural faux pas, constantly reminding Billi of the ways life in America has detached her from her heritage. She is criticised for her imperfect Chinese and accused of not understanding the nuances of her own culture that prioritise family over individual desires. Lulu Wang’s writing and direction are often sombre in tone, but the balance with light-hearted digs and morbid jokes between estranged relatives feel deeply real. There’s a golden thread that connects the ensemble of characters despite their differences, held together by a love that transcends their geographical distance.
Awkwafina is pitch perfect as Billi; her performance is beautifully measured in its balancing of humour and grief, release and restraint. She captures a frustration and vulnerability that come with the uncertainty of one’s place in the world, of feeling like a stranger in your own home. The film’s beating heart is Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), epitomising the devoted matriarch who is unafraid to criticise her granddaughter but will never let her go hungry or leave the house without a scarf. The sincerity of the relationship between the two sustains the narrative with a wonderful warmth and sentiment that work their magic quietly but intensely. Other standouts are Diana Lin and Jiang Yongbo as Billi’s mother and uncle respectively, but every member of the family brings a unique and fully-realised piece to the puzzle.
The Farewell is at once deeply personal and utterly relatable, a credit to Wang’s bittersweet storytelling that will stay with you long after the last goodbye.