The Farewell

First Hit: Wonderful story about how this Chinese family deals with a prognosis of death.

I cannot tell you that it’s factually correct that Chinese families often do not mention one of their older members that they have cancer and are going to soon die. The reason for not telling is to let them enjoy the time they have left without worry. If it is true, it’s understandable and if not, it might be worth exploring as a way to deal with such a prognosis.

In this film, we are introduced to Billi (Awkwafina) who lives in New York City talking on the phone with her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) who lives in China. We learn that Billi was born in China but left when her parents, Haiyan and Jian (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin respectively), went to explore an opportunity in the United States. She was two years old.

The film does a great job of showing the audience their closeness.

Nai Nai has cancer, but she doesn’t know it. She believes she still has a bad cough from an early bout with pneumonia. Nai Nai’s grandson Haohao (Han Chen), from Nai Nai’s other son Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), has announced a wedding to Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) after only dating her for three months.

It is unsaid but understood, that the reason for the wedding is that Nai Nai will be dead soon and it would be joyous for her if she got to host this one great event before she dies. Nai Nai is shown happily planning the event.

Under the guise of this wedding, everyone is traveling to China to partake in the celebration. What Nai Nai doesn’t know is that they are also coming to say goodbye to her.

It is recommended by Billi’s parents that she not come because they fear she will tell Nai Nai the truth about her illness. Billi decides to go anyway, and because she’s the main character, we go with her.

This Chinese family’s situation and dynamics are explored as are other Chinese traditions. The dialogue is smart and often in Chinese, so the audience has to read subtitles on the screen. It is kept within the confines of when Nai Nai is in conversation because she doesn’t understand or speak English and actually adds to the flavor of the film.

The preparations for the wedding have some funny moments like when Nai Nai tries to understand why the chef has changed the lobster meal to ta crab meal. I also loved how Nai Nai teaches Billi how to do morning exercises.

The scenes in China are durable and reflective of life in some parts of China today. I thought the way the film allowed each of the characters to express their impending grief and current love for Nai Nai to be lovely.

Awkwafina was excellent as Billi. Generally known as a comedian, she handles this serious role with studied excellence. Ma and Lin were as wonderful as Billi’s parents. The dialogue between Billie and her mother in the car about expressing emotions was particularly touching and pointed. Zhao was sublime as the matriarch grandmother. Chen, as the groom to be, was very effective at showing a certain reticence and honor for the actions he was about to participate in. Lulu Wang wrote and directed this film and showed she had a deft touch for creating a realistic storyline.

Overall: I like this film, and it did remind me of some of the behavior and language inflections of Chinese families I’ve known.