The Farewell illustrates a universal story of love and family


“Based on an actual lie.”

In a mere hundred minutes, The Farewell illustrates a struggle in identity, the love found in family, the clashing of collectivism against individualism, and so much more, but these five tantalizing words sum it up pretty well. 

The film opens with Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American woman entering her thirties, phoning her grandmother from the streets of her hometown of New York. Her straight, black hair blows freely in the wind as she reassures her Nai Nai (an affectionate Mandarin term for one’s paternal grandmother) that she’s wearing a hat. Although Billi and her family moved away from China when she was just six, she maintains a close relationship with her Nai Nai. 

Unfortunately, as soon as Billi gets off the streets and arrives at her parents’ house, she receives the devastating news that her Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer and only has a few months to live. She immediately reaches for her phone to call and comfort her Nai Nai, but her mother, Jian (Diana Lin), stops her. 

Nai Nai doesn’t know that she is sick, and no one in the family is to tell her. 

“Chinese people have a saying,” Jian explains. “When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.”

As an excuse for the family to see their beloved matriarch once more, a wedding is thrown together for Billi’s cousin and his girlfriend. The family doesn’t want Billi to go, afraid that she’ll make a show of her emotions and let the secret spill. Billi has to fight her way through, and she soon finds herself in China acting out the lie that she so resentfully tells. 

Just as the tagline suggests, The Farewell is modeled on an actual lie. 

When director Lulu Wang’s mother called to tell her that her Nai Nai was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Nai Nai herself didn’t know, and no one was to tell her. The next time Wang and her family would see her Nai Nai, it would be under the guise of a wedding for her cousin. 

In many places around the world, including China, a lie of this nature isn’t uncommon. When a timer is put on a loved one’s life, the family can end up bearing the burden for them, hiding the truth until the timer runs out. 

In America, a lie like that would simply be illegal, and a story revolving around it could feel intangible. The film is shot in China, and 80 percent of it is in Mandarin, making it even less relatable and accessible to American audiences. Even if it had been marketed as a Chinese movie, Billi’s situation and the turmoil she endures because of it are uniquely Asian-American. 

On the surface, The Farewell reads as very niche, but Wang has crafted a film of universal allure.

Although this film follows a family that lives across the world from the target audience, no explanations are given for their actions; some of the Mandarin isn’t even subtitled. It may seem counterintuitive, but the lack of explanation immediately creates a welcoming atmosphere for the viewer. 

In just the first few minutes of the film, we are thrown into Billi’s world. 

From the strenuous relationship between Billi’s parents to the love that Nai Nai gives when she urges everyone to eat more, the bonds between family members are laid bare as they tear and heal. Even though these links are forged in Mandarin, the global understanding of the value of family lets the viewer empathize with the characters, no matter what language is being spoken. 

The manner in which everything is laid bare extends beyond the atmosphere. 

Throughout the film, the two sides of Billi’s identity conflict. Her American upbringing clashes with her Chinese heritage, and her lilted, accented Mandarin serves as a constant reminder of her differences as an American in China. 

The film weighs these differences, exploring both the individualism seen in American culture and the collectivism seen in Chinese culture. In America, one must do everything for themselves, but on the other side of the world, one is a part of a whole, a part of a family. 

While Billi toils over these conflicts for the entirety of the movie, neither is declared inherently better than the other. Even in the ethical debate over the lie, neither side prevails. Wang merely presents the viewer with the options and leaves the rest of the thinking to them, setting it apart from other culture-clash films. 

Other films may have derived humor from parodying one side or another, but The Farewell paves itself a different path. The humor is not constructed from the quirks Chinese culture; the humor is found in the lighthearted moments with Nai Nai and moments of unsubtitled Mandarin that speak for themselves. While death and ethics are complex discussions waiting around the corner, the small bits of humor that are peppered in make the film comedic despite the subject matter. 

After the hundred minutes were up, I was forced to bid farewell to Billi and her family, but I emerged feeling as if I had meshed into the very fabric of her world. The Farewell proves that our lives are woven with the same threads no matter what culture, what family, or what grandmother.