There’s a saying that no one has your back like family. Through the good, the bad and the ugly, the people who have been by our side from the start are (hopefully) the ones we can turn to when the going gets tough. With endless ways to define what makes a “family,” it would seem nearly impossible to capture the essence of the word in just one film. That said, by illuminating the universal inescapability of our roots, in “The Farewell,” director Lulu Wang (“Posthumous”) commendably depicts the power that the people who raise us and the places we call home have over us all.
While navigating the trials and tribulations of young adulthood, independent and witty Billi (Awkwafina, “Crazy Rich Asians”) learns of her beloved grandmother Nai Nai’s lung cancer diagnosis. Torn apart at the news, Billi is in disbelief over her family’s intentions not to tell Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) she is fatally ill. As the extended family gathers together in China, under the guise of Billi’s cousin’s faux wedding, their reunion is bittersweet, with each family member anticipating the loss of the adored family matriarch. Though opposed to the family consensus, Billi promises to bite her tongue and play along with the fabrication, her heart set on enjoying what little time she has left with Nai Nai.
Central to the film’s success is the pure, loving bond between Nai Nai and Billi. Despite the generational, cultural and lingual gaps between them, their connection is incredibly strong. Awkwafina’s personable humor and Shuzhen Zhou’s embodiment of Nai Nai’s matriarchal yet warm temperament is a dynamite combination. Their relationship gives the film focus, a point of reference that we graciously grab onto while confronting the complex overlap of funny and tear-jerking moments. When we look at Nai Nai and Billi, we don’t just see a grandmother and a granddaughter. We see a friendship, an attachment that is built on care, trust and love, not just shared blood.
While the film’s core revolves around the intricacy of familial love, the underlying narrative of Billi’s self-discovery journey holds a significant role. Born Chinese but raised in the U.S., Billi’s visit to see Nai Nai pushes her to face the duality of her identity, as well as others’ perceptions of that duality. When checking into a hotel her first night in China, the concierge lights up at the revelation that Billi is from the U.S., probing her about whether it is “better.” Billi awkwardly deflects the question, answering that neither the U.S. or China is better, but both are different. Though the context of the scene is quite lighthearted, Billi’s response holds a lot of depth. She has unbreakable ties to both countries, with some pieces of her rooted in America and others eternally belonging to China. Neither is superior to the other because both are, in their own ways, home.
“The Farewell” reminds us that familial love, like love in all its forms, is messy. Though there are times that it pulls at our heart strings, there are others where it makes us belly laugh. The mixed emotions we feel perfectly tie into the complex feelings of grief, nostalgia and joy that the characters are grappling with. Filled with moments of beauty and sorrow, “The Farewell” may conjure up a few laughs, or even make you shed a few tears. One thing is certain though: When the lights go black, you’ll definitely want to give your grandma a call.