‘The Farewell’ transcends cultural borders to bring out the universal

When an elderly, beloved family member is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and has only three months to live, will you let her know the prognosis or hide it and spare her of fear and burden? Chinese-American director Lulu Wang has turned her real-life family experience into first, a radio program on “This American Life” (aptly entitled ‘In Defense of Ignorance’), and subsequently adapted it into a movie, The Farewell. The Chinese title is more direct: 別告訴她, “Don’t tell her.”


In the film, the family decides not to tell their beloved matriarch grandmother, Nai Nai, (Shuzhen Zhao), about her health status. She’s living contentedly, doing her morning exercise with gusto, relatively independent, with her younger sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) keeping a watchful eye on her.

To arrange for everyone to say farewell and see Grandma Nai Nai one last time, older son Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) and his family will return from Japan, staging a hasty wedding of their son Hao Hao (Han Chen) to his Japanese girlfriend of just three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Their plan is to have the celebration in the city where Nai Nai lives, Changchun.

Nai Nai’s younger son Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and his wife Jian (Diana Lin) will go back from New York for the wedding. Such a ruse is not received well by their daughter Billi (Awkwafina), born in China but raised in America, who upholds the values of individual rights and transparency.

Easy, her parents tell her she doesn’t need to go as they are afraid her Americanized expressiveness will give it away the moment Nai Nai sees her face. Billi won’t stand for that either, for she loves her grandma, with whom she’d had a close bond as a child until she left for the U.S. at the age of six. She still keeps in touch with Nai Nai by phone with her passable Mandarin. So Billi goes to China on her own, a surprise for the whole family––a pleasant one for Nai Nai, but a precarious risk for everyone else.

Since its debut at Sundance early this year, The Farewell has been winning audience’s hearts. Wang’s film is greeted as another strong voice in the diversity movement within the movie industry, following the flagship crowd-pleaser Crazy Rich Asians last summer. With a mostly Chinese main cast, shot in Changchun and New York City, Wang’s feature aptly depicts the cultural clashes immigrants face when leaving their home and settling in the West, or the older, first generation with their America born or raised children.

The wide reception the movie has been garnering is a reflection that this kind of dilemmas or conflicts are not limited to one cultural group. The issues families face, illness and death, parenting our own elderly parents, resolving disagreements and maintaining relationships are but some universal experiences joining us all.

The Farewell is Wang’s second directorial work after her 2014 debut feature Posthumous. In this her sophomore film, looks like she has established a personal style of her own. The slow pacing depicts effectively the internal world of the characters. While the middle section feels a little bogged down, the ensemble performance of the whole cast soon lifts us up and lands us on a higher plane.

Awkwafina’s (a.k.a. Nora Lum) performance is spot-on in depicting the conflicting emotions Billi is riding through. It’s obvious she has found her niche and developed into a full-fledged actor who can carry a story soundly on her own. She has morphed from rapper to actor, from being just a sidekick in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians to a dramatic lead. Thanks to Wang’s script, Awkwafina has several cathartic, moving moments showcasing her skills. For this role, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and became the first actor of Asian descent to capture that top prize.

Humor is the key to the heartstrings of the audience, and Wang has splashed it throughout readily, however deadpan it may come in. While the subject matter is somber, the comedic elements are ubiquitous. Some may require discernment from the audience to laugh where it’s meant to laugh, and refrain from it when it’s meant to be serious; that’s an interesting observation I got as I sat in the theatre. Dramedy? Dark comedy? Light drama? Genre fusing no doubt.

The music of the film particularly stands out. The selections could well be influenced by Wang’s own classical music training before her filmmaking career. During the pivotal scene of the wedding banquet, the operatic aria “Caro Mio Ben” is performed (soundtrack sung by South Korean soprano Hyesang Park with piano accompaniment by Wang herself.) The longing tune alone captivates, but knowing the lyrics will add credit to the mindfulness of Wang’s selection: “Dearest, my beloved, believe me at least this much, without you, my heart languishes.”

Composer Alex Weston’s original score augments the emotional power of the story by weaving a soulful voice motif across the scenes, stirring up a reflective and poignant tone throughout. Indeed, the fusion of Western music in an Eastern culture is all realistic in our contemporary world, its purpose could well be drawing out the universal, uniting us all in our humanity.

Overall, the ingenuity of Wang’s feature has effectively bridged two seemingly dichotomized cultural views, the East and the West, regarding the serious issue of to tell, or not to tell when a beloved, elderly family member is diagnosed with terminal illness. In just 100 minutes of screen time, Wang has brought a contentious, ethical issue to a human level and wrapped it with heart. The Farewell is a worthy addition to a hopefully sustaining trend of diversity and representation in the film industry.


~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “‘The Farewell’ transcends cultural borders to bring out the universal”

  1. Whoa. We found out that my father had stage 4 lung cancer and had three months to live in September, several years ago. The doctors estimated that he had three months to live. He died in early November. I can’t even imagine not telling someone in that situation about what was happening. That seems cruel. I think I’ll skip this film.


    1. Jeanne,

      I’m so sorry for your loss. Must have been a difficult period of your life. Thanks so much for your sharing. Here in the filmmaker’s own real-life, family experience, ‘cruel’ is exactly the word she used in her radio program (linked above) a few years before she made the film, expressing her own feeling at the time. Herein lies the conflict of the story for the film, a searing and powerful emotional conflict for her, depicted by Awkwafina as Billi, the granddaughter. The family, of course, had their reasons for the ‘good lie’. The continuance of the whole event comes in the end credits, no spoiler here in this review.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember hearing about this film last summer, I think, when it was making the rounds. But not up north! A nice piece about it on NPR. It sounds wonderful. A good reminder that it is out there. Wish it would show up on netflix!


    1. Jeanie,

      You must be thinking of Crazy Rich Asians from last summer. The Farewell is a 2019 film premiered at Sundance early this year, then released in selective theatres in the summer. Actually, it had surpassed Avengers: Endgame for the biggest per-theatre box office average this year. As the Awards Season has kicked off, the film is beginning to gather momentum in being noted. BTW, just a few days ago, the 76 year-old Zhao Shuzhen who played Nai Nai came to America for the first time in her life, joining in the promo of the feature.


  3. I’d love to see this. I have started seeing my grandma a lot recently and she is 90 and very sane but things are bound to come upon us soon, physical or mental.
    I can’t find it anywhere! Hoping it will come up online or in a cinema soon. I can see it on amazon.com for streaming but not in the UK yet


    1. Denise,

      It’s released in the UK and Ireland in Sept. according to IMDb. Has been playing in film festivals all over. As to the story, I feel it’s so real as I know it’s not uncommon among Chinese families to not let the elderly know about the elder’s terminal prognosis. And same with the younger generation too: if they’re diagnosed with a serious illness, adult children would tend to keep the news to themselves and not let their elderly parents know. I personally know of cases like these myself. I’m just thinking this might be the case for other cultures as well.


  4. Hi Arti, I saw this last September, and liked it a lot. Indeed, after seeing it I watched Crazy Rich Asians again to remind myself of Awkwafina’s skill!

    My Californian friend and I wrote to each other a bit about the set up in this film. She was astonished that this information was withheld. However, I think that really it’s only been relatively recently that this sort of transparency has become common practice in the West. I think it is the right thing to do, but I don’t think we Westerners shouldn’t be too holier than thou about what the film presents.

    Anyhow, I thought the film was great – so well, and sensitively done. And Awkwafina was so convincing. Your write up is excellent as always.


    1. WG,

      As you can see in the end credits, and even up to now I think, Nai Nai still lives! Recently she’d known the truth as the film began its screening in China a few months ago. I do wish her well. You see, something similar to this had occurred in my own family. I can tell you this: upon the news of the death of one family member, a beloved sister died within three days. However, the spouse of this person who died wasn’t told of the news (as a dementia patient in her mid 90’s in a nursing home) she wasn’t told the news, not outright anyway. She lived for four more years. I can fully empathize with Lulu Wang’s family situation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I can too … and nearly said in my comment that I think there are always exceptions to the transparency rule. Transparency is a good thing – the other way was very parternalistic – but that doesn’t mean it is ALWAYS a good thing.

        Yes, I had heard recently that she was still alive now, and wondered if by now she knew. It would be hard for her not to. I wonder what her reaction was to the secrecy, and to the film being made?


        1. I’m afraid right now in China, the critical concern is the Covid 19 virus. One can die easier from that than lung cancer. 😦

          Anyway, I look forward to more good quality Asian American films like The Farewell. And do you know Awkwafina has her own TV series now? “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens”. Too bad I don’t have access to that show. Eager to watch that.


          1. No I didn’t, but I don’t really keep up with TV shows that aren’t on our free-to-air government station. No time really.

            As for covid-19, yes. A big issue here… start of school and university years and students unable to get back.


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