Movie Review: "The Farewell"
The Farewell is based on a lie. An actual lie that Lulu Wang also turned into an audio segment on This American Life, which is where I first heard the story. When it was announced that Lulu Wang was going to turn the story into a movie, I knew without a doubt that it would be incredible. And I wasn’t wrong. Some stories work no matter the medium. This is one of those stories.
It goes like this: The matriarch of a Chinese family — Nai Nai — is diagnosed with Stage-4 cancer and given only a few months to live, but her sister is the one who talks to the doctor, and she chooses to not tell Nai Nai the truth about her diagnosis. Then, under the ruse of a wedding, the entire extended family travels back to China to see Nai Nai for the last time. But none of them can actually say goodbye, per se, because Nai Nai can’t know the truth.
The story is told from Lulu’s perspective, which she told beautifully in the This American Life segment. For the movie, the director veiled the truth underneath another layer of fiction — creating a new protagonist in Billi, played by Awkwafina.
I could spend this entire piece on a variety of things — the superior performances, the exquisite cinematography, the scenework itself — but what I really want to focus on is the story and how Lulu Wang brought it to life in a new way.
The Farewell is the kind of story not often seen on the big screen. It’s small in scope. It’s emotional. It doesn’t have action sequences, superheroes, or special effects. It’s the kind of film that, unfortunately, won’t be seen by as many people as it should be. For whatever reason, audiences will flock to Disney remakes and loud action-thrillers instead.
But The Farewell is exactly the kind of film we need right now. In a politically divisive time, when anger runs rampant and prejudices are unchecked, this kind of story is a kind of Band-Aid, a salve that can unite instead of divide.
The story of Nai Nai and her family’s lie is what my writing mentor would call “the universal in the specific.” By focusing on one family, Lulu Wang tells the story of every family. For what family hasn’t experienced change and loss? What family hasn’t experienced a pivotal moment in their history?
Every scene in The Farewell is small and intimate — no expansive sequences here. Seen through Billi’s eyes, every moment, every word, every look has an immense weight. After all, it could be one of the last with her Nai Nai, a fact she is painfully aware of throughout the entire film.
Billi wrestles with the lie her family has decided to tell, her internal conflict steering the emotional backbone of the film.
“Shouldn’t we tell her? Isn’t it wrong to lie?” she asks an English-speaking doctor. “It’s a good lie,” he responds. “Most families in China would choose not to tell her.”
In another scene, Billi argues with her uncle about whether or not to tell Nai Nai the truth. “You think one’s life belongs to oneself,” he explains. “But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.”
While the dialogue doesn’t pull punches, most of the meaning imbued in the film is subtle — the way a character holds herself, the birds that land on Billi’s windowsills, the prolonged shots at important moments — specifically meant to evoke meaning, not shout it from the rooftops. Every scene could be at once painfully sad, joyously funny, and cringe inducing. Such is life.
And that’s what makes The Farewell so incredible. It’s honest. It’s real. It’s genuine. It touches on death, life, family, truth, guilt, grief, purpose, and so many other themes, but doesn’t do so in a way that feels over-the-top or trite.
It just feels like life.
None of the photos in this post are my own.