Family, Feuds, and a Final “Farewell”

Note: Spoilers ahead. 

Ever since I first heard Awkwafina talking about her role in The Farewell for a “73 Questions” interview with Vogue, I knew I had to watch the film. The Farewell, alongside Crazy Rich Asians, has contributed to an exciting new wave in Asian American cinema. While the film industry has a long way to go in truly representing the diversity of the entire Asian community (and representing them well), the all-Asian cast in both of these movies was an inspiring first step for many. From just the beautifully crafted trailer and short teaser clips on Youtube, The Farewell offered a promising story about the intersection of family and culture, something I always love to see in films. 

It’s officially been a year since I put the film on my mental “to-watch” list, so I recently took the time to enjoy it in its entirety. And wow, The Farewell absolutely lives up to the hype. 

Since its release in 2019, the film has received critical acclaim across the board, from its Audience Favorite award at the Sundance Film Festival to its 98% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The Farewell follows the story of Billi (played by Awkwafina), a Chinese-born and American-raised protagonist who learns devastating news – her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai (played by Zhao Shuzhen), has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. While Billi grapples with this news, she discovers another jarring fact: her family doesn’t plan to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis. Instead, they plan a fake wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse for the entire family to visit their matriarch and say goodbye. 

Keeping terminal diagnoses a secret from sick family members is a common practice in China, where other members of the family feel it is their duty to carry the emotional burden on behalf of their loved ones. As Billi’s uncle explains, “In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” 

The lie is a major point of emotional conflict for Billi. She doesn’t understand why her family is choosing not to tell Nai Nai that she has only a few months to live, and she feels guilty about her participation in the lie. Like so many Asian Americans, Billi is caught between two cultural ideals: individualism and collectivism. Against her parents’ wishes, Billi eventually takes a flight from her home in New York to join the rest of her extended family in China for the fake wedding. Unbeknownst to Nai Nai, this trip is Billi’s final farewell to the person she cares for the most. 

The Farewell is actually based on a true story – specifically, a story from the life of the film’s director, Lulu Wang. Wang’s grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2013, and her family decided to keep the diagnosis a secret. 

Although The Farewell tells her story, Wang didn’t intend for Billi to be a direct translation of herself on-screen. Rather, she hoped for Billi to be a model for any Asian American who feels like they have “one foot in the door and one foot out.” 

In fact, the lead actress, Awkwafina, felt like she’d been “preparing for the role of Billi her whole life.” Awkwafina’s grandmother raised her since she was four years old, and is someone the actress considers to be her “savior...and best friend." The emotional connection both Wang and Awkwafina have to this film is apparent in the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter, which manifests organically in their acting.

I saw myself in Billi in so many ways, and Wang does a phenomenal job of subtly including scenes that explore the cultural nuances of being an Asian American. One of the final scenes in the film shows Billi hugging her grandma goodbye before getting in a taxi to go to the airport. Nai Nai, tears rolling down her face, continues to wave goodbye to Billi as the taxi drives out of sight. This moment is also the only scene where we see Billi’s mom (played by Diana Lin) break down, quietly holding back tears. While brief, this scene is a meaningful depiction of the pain of saying goodbye, especially for Asian families who live an entire ocean apart. 

My favorite scenes in the film, however, are the ones at the family dinner table. These moments didn’t necessarily move the plot forward, but they’re so interesting; they illuminate the dynamics of Billi’s family and give insight into characters who otherwise didn’t have much dialogue. With a dozen people at a massive circular table, most of the eating scenes highlight the quintessential liveliness and chaos of Asian family dinners many us can relate to. In these film segments there’s laughter, chatter, jugs of alcohol, a rainbow of food being exchanged, hands reaching for dishes across the table, and joy that, for obvious reasons, has an undertone of sadness. 

Family beef is exposed at the dinner table as well. During one particular dinner scene, the differences between members of Billi’s family are quite literally laid out on the table. Billi’s family, who lives in America, her uncle’s family, who lives in Japan, and the elders, who live in China have a passive-aggressive argument about what their Chinese heritage means to them. I loved this scene because it was so refreshingly confrontational. While the mood was tense and awkward, it forced a necessary conversation about the multiple perspectives and differences in the Asian diaspora. In an interview, Wang shared that it was important to her to include this particular scene, because “it gave context to all of these different people who appear Asian, but have very different relationships to what it means to be Asian.”

The themes in The Farewell are universally moving, yet authentic to the film’s Chinese-American roots. What I appreciate most about this film is that it doesn’t feel the need to over-explain anything. Billi’s family isn’t telling their story as “the other,” but simply as themselves. There’s so much to appreciate about this movie, and it has not only made its impact in the Asian American film canon, but also in the larger contemporary film industry. The stunning cinematography, intriguing storyline, and poignant moments make it an absolute must-watch for everyone. 

The Farewell held a mirror to my life as an Asian American, and helped me confront feelings of nostalgia, sorrow, and pain; but it also illuminated the devotion and love that come with saying “farewell."