Death is a difficult subject to broach, on film, in literature, or even in everyday life. It seems surprising that this aspect of life should be so dense for us, as Benjamin Franklin said, “… in this world nothing can be said for certain, except death and taxes.” It is thus always refreshing when an artist chooses to delve into the subject manner, and specifically while analyzing two different approaches to the event from the East and the West.
The Farewell (2019) is inspired in writer-director Lulu Wang’s experience with her grandmother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. Billie (Awkwafina) is an unemployed Chinese-American living in New York; when her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) tell her that her grandmother in China, whom they call Nai-Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), has terminal cancer, Billie is distraught wanting to go and say goodbye. However, Billie’s parents reveal that Nai Nai doesn’t know her diagnosis, and that the entire family is to keep it a secret. Using a cousin’s wedding as an excuse for the family to come back and see Nai Nai, Billie goes back to the China she left when she was six-years-old.
There are multiple rich themes that this film draws upon. The main one being that of death, but there is also a close analysis in the multi-cultural experience that many immigrants have; such as the void they feel when they return to their homeland, only to learn that they don’t fit as comfortably in that society anymore. The subject of death and its approach from both cultures in the East and the West is the tool used to see the clash of such an immigrant experience. Billie in particular seems particularly shocked at having such information kept from her Nai Nai, but when her mother explains it through a Chinese proverb, viewers begin to see it through a different light: “In China when people get cancer, they die. Not because of the cancer, but because of the fear.” The debate doesn’t end there, with arguments for both sides making good cases, in the end leading to the conclusion that the human experience is a confusing one, and that emotion and morality might be completely separate.
Lulu Wang was able to make this film with both American and Chinese financiers, and her own bi-cultural identity give The Farewell a certain duality that will play to both Western and Eastern audiences as a learning experience. The marrying of both, supposed, disparate cultures in Billie, and seeing how it both tears as well as enriches her is a supplication for understanding between both cultures. And in the end, with various scenes of family dinners and humor with certain wedding scenes, we see that these categorized polar-opposite cultures are not so different after all, as we find more and more universalities.
Awkwafina, famous for both her bold rap-songs and her recent foray into comedies such as Oceans Eight (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is able to produce a dramatic turn that surprises everyone. Despite many comics making the most appealing of dramatic actors (Steve Carrell, Adam Sandler, Bill Murray), a show of such performance range is bound to shock many viewers. Awkwafina brings an incredibly layered performance, with her outward fake joy at the wedding not fully covering the sad longing in her eyes whenever she glances at her Nai Nai. Shuzhen Zhao manages an impossible task of embodying Wang’s own inspired Nai Nai, while also seeming to double for viewers’ own familiar figures, making many scenes all the more emotional.
Wang’s The Farewell is a truly enrichening experience, for its bold analysis of difficult subjects and the incredible skill with which they are brought to the screen and simplified for viewers to digest. For those who have been through a form of an immigrant experience, the film has added depth and experience that will no doubt touch the hearts of all who view it, regardless.