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The Farewell

Released 2019. Director: Lulu Wang

YOU'D NEVER LIE TO YOUR GRANDMOTHER, WOULD YOU? THE FAREWELL isn’t shy about its origin as a fib, announcing right off the bat at the start it’s “Based on an actual lie.” The untruth at the heart of this winsome drama is the charade by writer-director Lulu Wang’s family to conceal her granny’s cancer from the old lady.

By their reckoning, it’s better if granny doesn’t know she only has a few months left instead of being told and living out her last days in misery, dreading the countdown. It’s tempting to debate whether the family is right or wrong in not telling granny the truth about her condition. But the movie is more interested in telling a story of what it all means for the family. Whether right or wrong, it’s secondary.

The Farewell is told from the viewpoint of Billi, who migrated to America aged six with her parents from China. Billi has a close relationship with her beloved Nai Nai (Mandarin for granny). The two chat on the phone regularly even though Billi’s fluency in her mother tongue has clearly waned.

When the family receives news of Nai Nai’s cancer prognosis through a relative, everyone (including Billie’s uncle’s family in Japan) decide to make a trip to see her for the last time. In order not to arouse Nai Nai’s suspicion to this sudden reunion, they will stage a wedding for Billie’s cousin to his Japanese girlfriend.

The visitors arrive home with a heavy heart and make every effort to hide their true emotions. On the contrary, Nai Nai is over the moon to see her clan gather under one roof, an occasion which hasn’t happened for many years. She fusses around her children and grandchildren, showing little sign of a woman about to die. As far as Nai Nai is concerned, her ailment is only a lingering cold she can’t shake off. Nothing to worry about.

The modesty in Nai Nai’s home and her life has an endearing quality. Zhao Shuzhen brings genuine emotions in a natural and lively performance, the simple joys of spending quality time with her family heart-warming.

Awkwafina completely disowns her persona on YouTube, Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 and finds a quiet calmness to Billie. Here’s a raunchy comedian showing a serious dramatic side as an actress, with a stillness that belies the pain of a last goodbye to a loved one.

Wang’s screenplay shows emotional authenticity without belabouring or sentimentalising, or worse, inadvertently turning the charade into a farce. Through Billi’s eye, the story is seen through a lens of bemused sadness, with the understanding this is an inverted act of grieving. In spite of the subject having to do with the knowledge of imminent death of a family member, there is a fair amount of humour, a credit to Wang’s perceptive writing and a lightness of touch to her directing.

The most consequential scene, surprisingly, has little to do with Nai Nai and Billi. As the various family members catch up over dinner, the conversation turns into veiled jibes at parenting, criticisms and judgements part of the menu. Is there anything wrong in making a new life in another country, raising children in another culture? Is it always at the expense of familial and cultural ties?

For as long as humans have existed we have always ventured far and away where life takes us. Not everybody stays in one place for life. Every generation becomes increasingly mobile and equipped to move away and plant a flag somewhere else, leaving part of the wider family behind. With each succeeding generation the emotional connection continues to thin, a natural universal phenomenon as more people become global citizens going where the future beckons.

What emerges out of The Farewell is more than a goodbye to granny. It’s an acknowledgement of the long process of separation experienced by many migrants like Billi, who lives with a sense of displacement. For a young woman who is more at home in Manhattan and whose Mandarin sounds less and less like a native speaker, this is a farewell to her increasingly tenuous ties to her birth country. Saying goodbye to Nai Nai is equivalent to severing her connection to a place and time in her life she’s not ready to let go of.

Farewells are a fact of life, inevitable but they need not be all bad and sad. Nai Nai understands why her children and grandchildren can’t be with her. But they will always have each other in their hearts, which is just as important, if not more so.



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