Writer and Director Lulu Wang’s indie movie The Farewell has been getting a lot of media attention lately for its sensitivity and deviation from standard Hollywood themes. Filmed primarily in Mandarin with English subtitles, it’s the story of a Chinese-American girl’s reaction to the news her grandmother in China is dying of cancer. It’s a universal theme and appeals to anyone who has lost a loved family member. The main character, Billi, played by rapper and actor Awkwafina, was born in China but immigrated to New York as a child with her parents and she is thoroughly Americanized.
It’s the custom in Chinese culture to not inform cancer patients of their potential demise from the disease. Eastern philosophy dictates that the relatives bear the burden of the knowledge, relieving the patient of any associated negative energy. It is their belief that being given a death sentence creates fear which saps happiness and positive thinking. Billi finds this difficult to accept and constantly questions the decision. She is challenged when her American standard of sharing honest information about the diagnosis is over-ruled by her Chinese family.
In order for the extended family of Billi’s grandmother (Nai Nai) to pay their respects and say their farewells without her knowing why they are gathering, a grandson from Japan is coerced into returning to China to marry his Japanese girlfriend. The wedding calls for several days of celebration climaxing in a lavish wedding banquet attended by everyone in the extended family. The grandson and his girlfriend are not entirely on board with the scheme but go along for the sake of Nai Nai.
The movie has its funny moments and is universally appealing. We’ve all had grandmothers or other close relatives that we’ve lost due to old age or disease. We’ve all sat around the table with a diverse assortment of family members enjoying the camaraderie and the great food prepared by mothers, aunts and grandmothers. We’ve all experienced generational disagreements of one sort or another and we’ve all, much to our surprise, learned along the way that sometimes the older generation is actually wiser.
I enjoyed the movie, with one caveat. The main character Billi was morose and pouty throughout most of the movie. I accept that she could not accept her family’s decision to hide Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her, but would it have killed her to overlook her personal take on the situation and put on a happy face at least part of the time for the sake of her grandmother?
What I particularly enjoyed was the insights into Chinese culture and family dynamics. There were realistic scenes of Chinese apartments, streets, and daily life that I found very illuminating. As someone who has never been to China, I enjoyed the mini-travel experience. The movie is definitely worth seeing with rare insights into a different culture. Just try not to let Billi’s long face pull you down. So, if you’re looking for a movie to watch this weekend that doesn’t involve endless violence, endless fight scenes, endless special effects depicting zombies and world-ending disasters, consider taking in The Farewell. It’s a nice way to pass a couple of hours and a reasonable excuse for the consumption of warm, salty popcorn and a bucket of Diet Coke. We also need to support indie moviemakers who eschew traditional commercial Hollywood themes. And it has a great ending.