Film & TV

Immigrant Anxieties in The Farewell

LuLu Wang’s The Farewell, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Big Beach/IMDb)
If you come to this movie looking for a predictable story about culture shock, you won’t find it.

LuLu Wang’s The Farewell is about the little dishonesties present in every family: submerged sibling tension, complicated relationships with the in-laws, keeping mum about your personal life so your parents don’t worry. It’s also about one big white lie.

The movie centers on Billi (played by Awkwafina), a first-generation Chinese immigrant living in New York City, struggling to pay rent and succeed as a writer. Her father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), and her mother, Jian (Diana Lin), moved her to the States when she was ten, but she keeps in touch with her grandmother (called Nai Nai, and played by Shuzhen Zhao) through frequent phone calls. During a visit home, Billi’s parents drop a bombshell: Nai Nai’s been diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live.

But this is where the lie comes in. Nai Nai doesn’t know. Her sister, who got the results, convinced the doctor to let her tell Nai Nai that everything was fine, and the family has decided that the matriarch can’t learn of her impending demise. It’s explained that in China, keeping terminal diagnoses from the elderly is common so they don’t have to suffer a drawn-out confrontation with mortality. Instead, to Billi’s horror, the family decides that her Japanese-raised cousin will marry his girlfriend in Nai Nai’s city, so that they all can say goodbye without her knowing.

Billi is by far the most Westernized member of the clan, initially reacting with dismay at the thought of her beloved grandmother being kept in the dark, so much so that her parents leave for China without her (although she quickly follows). Once in Changchun, where Nai Nai lives, preparations for the wedding commence, and the family tries to say goodbye without really saying goodbye.

The Farewell is billed as a comedy, and there are moments of humor: a tacky photoshoot with the hilariously awkward bride and groom; a visit to the grave of Billi’s grandfather, where they light him a cigarette (even though he was supposed to quit). But frankly, the comedy is muted by the fact that everyone except Nai Nai is somewhat miserable for most of the movie, strained under the weight of the lie and their own grief. There’s a pervasive sense of gloom: The adults conspire in dark, shadowy rooms, and Billi glimpses a seamy side of China that she hasn’t encountered before.

Shuzhen Zhao, however, is in full charming-grandmother mode, dispensing one-liners and imperiously ordering around wedding staff and family members. She’s just happy her whole family is back together.

Maybe that’s the point. Billi’s uncle Haibin (Yongbo Jang) tells her that they lie so they can do Nai Nai’s mourning for her. In China, he explains, people are part of a whole: both family and society. The movie sets up an East–West culture clash, ripe for clichéd conflict between Billi’s individualism and her family’s traditional values. But Wang wisely pulls back from coming down too hard on either side and instead explores the tension without taking a hard line.

And while Billi feels a cultural distance from the rest of her family, she’s by no means a sneering Westerner. In an illustrative scene, her mother tells a heartwarming story of American hospitality: Their new pastor found out that Billi played piano but couldn’t afford lessons, so she opened the church for practice. “That is America,” Jian declares. Billi quickly corrects her, saying that America has plenty of problems and isn’t the paradise her parents make it out to be.

Boilerplate Millennial cynicism, you might think. But the movie slowly reveals that Billi had a hard and lonely childhood, too old to comfortably assimilate and too young to understand why. There are hints, too, of financial hardship and her father’s past drinking problem. Awkwafina showcases surprising depth as a young woman who is drifting, unsure where she belongs and where she’s going. It’s rare to see this viewpoint from Americans, especially in a story about immigration that doesn’t go over clichés of inclusion and acceptance.

If you come to this movie looking for a predictable story about culture shock, you won’t find it. What Wang succeeds in doing is using a particular problem, the family’s big lie, to explore a universal condition: how families choose to cover up and gloss over inconvenient or painful truths. And she suggests that this might not be such a bad idea. It’s at least understandable, and you sympathize with the family’s earnest attempts to handle the death of a beloved matriarch.

I walked away from The Farewell feeling strangely unsettled. The conclusion is messy, and though I went in thinking I’d be strongly on Billi’s side, I came out less than certain. Wang and Awkwafina end up putting the audience in Billi’s position, uncomfortably straddling the fence between two cultures. It asks what, exactly, we owe to our family, and they to us. Empathetic, funny, and moving, this film is sure to be one of the best of the year.