Billi (Awkwafina) is barely scraping by, trapped somewhere between her parents’ disapproval and her need for their continued financial support when she’s blindsided by the news of her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. Grandma, aka Nai Nai ( Shuzhen Zhao), is in China, and totally oblivious to her health status. Billi’s parents, Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved to America when Billi was 6, but she’s always managed to stay close to her grandmother. She’s disturbed when she finds out her parents are willing to keep the secret from Nai Nai, and even more dismayed when she learns they, and the rest of the family, will be travelling to China to say goodbye under the guise of a wedding. But Billi, known for being awfully emotional, is not invited. One look at her teary eyes would tip off Nai Nai for sure.
She goes anyway.
What follows is lyrical, moving and a thoughtful tribute to family, and the nature of goodbye. But it’s also a meditation on some of the differences between East and West. In China, it’s common practice to hide this type of diagnosis from a loved one. Billi feels conflicted about this choice, and reminds people that in America, it would be flat-out illegal for medical professionals to hide someone’s medical status from them. But Billi’s uncle insists that in Asia, family trumps everything, and it is their job to bear this emotional burden for her, so that Nai Nai’s last months or weeks or days are not wasted on sadness and regret.
And certainly, the film is not wasted on sadness or regret. The family throws a wedding so that all Nai Nai’s friends and relatives can gather round her one last time without arousing her suspicious. A very obliging girlfriend of just 3 months goes along with it and wins good sport of the year for the next dozen years. So now the onus is on Billi to say goodbye in a non-obvious way.. And it turns out she’s not just saying goodbye to Nai Nai, but to her last real link to China.
The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific. They really create a dynamic that is utterly believable as a family, and that’s why the movie works so well. It could easily melt toward the sentimental but manages to stay firmly away from the overwrought. That said, the writing is good. Very good. it rings true and feels relatable. Awkwafina is of course the light and joy of the film, but don’t expect her usual goofball act. The Farewell is not a comedy. It is subdued, and tragic. But Lulu Wang’s writing and direction keep it authentic and filled with compassion, the kind of film that unites us in our humanity.