In The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina) flies to China to attend a fake wedding. Why? So she and the rest of her family can stealthily say goodbye to Nainai (Zhao Shuhzen), their beloved matriarch – aka the only person that doesn’t know she only has a few weeks to live.
The tagline that crowns the cinema release poster for The Farewell, “based on an actual lie”, is comic, but universal. Universal in that “actual lies” seem to be commonplace in negotiating and persevering through family relationships.
Actual lies are, some might argue, a necessity in maintaining or restoring relative peace. So much so that director Lulu Wang has based this, her second and most recent feature film, on her own family’s attempt to shield her grandmother from a morbid illness.
In The Farewell, Billi – played by Awkwafina, (fresh from her star-turn in Crazy Rich Asians) – is told in no uncertain terms that her Nainai (Mandarin for “grandmother” and played by Zhao Shuzhen) must be prevented from knowing the truth about her health. Not only that but the extended family are going to bid a final farewell to Nainai under the hastily forced wedding of Billi’s cousin and his very, very, very new girlfriend.
The controversy that underpins this film isn’t to be found in this shotgun-style-wedding. Instead, it’s found in the perceived rights and wrongs of withholding a terminal cancer diagnosis from the family matriarch. Nainai’s descendants carry the emotional burden, instead of Nainai herself. This, explains Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma), is the preserve of Eastern culture – family and community – over Western culture’s “I, Me, Myself” mantra.
Schuzhen, with her lionshare of comic lines, very quickly becomes an affable character, emitting a humour-filled-joy that is both palpable and contagious. Indeed, one wonders if knowledge of her terminal cancer would have dulled her spirits at all, as Billi’s mother’s words echo in our heads: “The Chinese have a saying, ‘Cancer kills you’. People die from the fear.”
In fact, there are several moments during the film where it seems as if the real secret is that Nainai, despite the efforts of her fitful family, is all too aware of the real state of her health. That she is just playing them at their own game while enjoying, to the fullest, every moment that life gives her. The casual insults Nainai employs about others, her nonchalance about Chinese tradition, her unhinged, honest feminism and sweet intimacy with Billi, are deliciously addictive.
Tzi Ma, who is mesmerising in The Man in the High Castle, seems wasted here, with just a few throwaway exchanges. Indeed, the film doesn’t really scratch beyond the surface of repressed angst and animosity – within Billi herself or between various family members. There are confrontations between mother and daughter that stop short of really thrashing out pent-up issues. There are awkward questions between Nainai’s two adult sons that are silenced with generic, passive-aggressive statements about family loyalty. However, this is all too similar to the sweeping-it-under-the-carpet approach that is often the default place for many families.
The avoidance of ‘the elephant in the room’, will resonate with many. Wang’s reluctance or refusal to fully explore the emotional pain that lies buried beneath the heavily directed speeches, for example, during a tearful confrontation between Billi and her mother, is frustrating to watch but also frustratingly real.
So often, between so many of us, tongues are bitten, words are withheld and hurts are squashed, because it’s oh-much-too-painful and it’s often just easier (and sometimes even advisable) to pretend, to do family in small doses and get along as much as possible, for the sake of the peace.
The best part of the film, though, is Awkwafina’s very believable inner (and often vocalised) turmoil between the lies and the truth; her Chinese heritage and American reality; her fierce independence and the compromise of family; her restrained, hunch backed, pyjama-cool demeanour.
It is Awkwafina, whose actual name is Nora Lum, who enchants and fascinates us. Her facial expressions, movements and interactions are all delivered with a conviction that transcends the film itself.
Kemi J Williams
Kemi J Williams is a film critic for Stylist magazine. She thrives on analysing all things on screen from cult classics to daring dystopias. Ardent about empowering girls and women, she can also be found teaching secondary English while juggling the joys and challenges of motherhood. You can catch her latest musings on Twitter and Instagram @KemiJWilliams.