In her subtle, bittersweet second feature, The Farewell, director Lulu Wang reveals the complexities and contradictions of being a second-generation immigrant. By Debbie Zhou.

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell

A scene from The Farewell, starring Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen (second and third from left).
A scene from The Farewell, starring Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen (second and third from left).
Credit: Courtesy Roadshow

It may seem the push–pull tensions between the East and the West are at the crux of the distinctive lie that cuts through director Lulu Wang’s tender, soft-hued sophomore feature, The Farewell. But carve out this central lie and its tougher logistics, and the film unfurls in gentler emotional waves – opening up unexpected truths. Wang’s interest is in those rich complexities of living in between worlds: where one’s hybrid immigrant identity leaves in its wake conflicted feelings of nostalgia, estrangement and a longing for connection.

The film – which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has since become a box office hit in the United States – begins with a playful subversion of the quintessential biopic intertitle: it is “based on an actual lie”. Wang’s own life forms the basis of the story, which she first told on the public radio program This American Life in 2016. The film follows struggling New York-raised writer Billi (Awkwafina), whose family decides to keep her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), Nai Nai in Mandarin, in the dark about her terminal cancer diagnosis.

The family’s desire is to bear this emotional burden for her – a practice formed on the belief of Eastern collectivism, which sees a person’s life as part of a whole, in contrast to Western individualism. The Farewell’s Chinese title – most literally translated as Don’t Tell Her – foreshadows the challenges of carrying such a hefty secret: the family reunites in Nai Nai’s home town of Changchun, China, under the pretence of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao’s (Chen Han) wedding, all trying to bid goodbye to the matriarch in a way that reveals nothing to her.

The Farewell is a personal, compelling family dramedy, but the film goes beyond its premise and genre conventions – carefully unpacking questions about the division between cultural value systems and ways of thinking. Wang’s nifty genre sensibilities were already clear in her debut feature, Posthumous (2014), a screwy rom-com set in the Berlin art scene, and the short film Touch (2015), a confrontation of the chilling consequences of cultural dissonance. But here, the writer-director brings a mature thoughtfulness to her tale. The film doesn’t compromise any of its idiosyncratic personality, bolstered by its script, also penned by Wang, which accentuates both the drama and comedy with an impressive tonal quickfire. “Chinese people have a saying,” Billi’s mum explains to her, deadpan. “When people get cancer, they die.”

There is no physical villain at play, only the weight of the truth – and Wang deftly sets up an air of disquiet early on, as her protagonist and relatives shoulder the “good lie” with forced apathy. In scenes charged with tension, the lie gains a stranglehold on them. This unease is drawn out meticulously: Wang allows it to fester in silences, knowing looks and the welling of tears that can’t fall. Nai Nai’s illness brings Billi’s American family and cousin Hao Hao’s Japanese one together for the first time in 20 years, we are told, and they repeatedly gather to eat in true Chinese family reunion style. While there is friction, it is suppressed – there are no August: Osage County-esque dinner table screaming matches here. Overhanging all of this, though, is the fear: will anyone reveal anything to Nai Nai?

When I spoke to Wang recently about The Farewell, she said she was inspired by genre films such as thrillers and horror movies – likening the dread of saying goodbye to Nai Nai to “a monster that might rear its head at any moment”. But Wang doesn’t simply milk that terror until it’s dry; what sustains the film is a deep sense of fondness and warmth in the bond between Billi and Nai Nai – and this discord is played with a sly, compassionate hand.

There’s a studious playfulness to how certain shots are staged, as though they are placed to make you unsure whether to laugh or cry. Scenes are infused with a sense of disorientation without feeling completely offbeat. One sequence, set during a pre-wedding photoshoot, places Hao Hao and his new Japanese fiancée, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), in the background as they hilariously fumble to appear naturally loving against their pastel-walled backdrops. In the foreground, Nai Nai throws out devastating statements, envisioning a future with Billi: “When you get married, Nai Nai will throw you an even bigger banquet,” she tells her granddaughter, their heads locked closely together.

Wang points out that the film isn’t just about what’s unspoken, but also what can’t be said – “the things that are lost in translation because of [a] cultural gap”. The Farewell is primarily delivered in Mandarin with subtitles, but it’s also peppered with English and, in some scenes, Chinglish – a combination of the two. Wang’s focus on Billi’s Chinese–American identity is why the film flourishes on a deeply emotional level, capturing acutely what it means to grieve cultural connections hanging on the last, wispy threads of memory.

Wang’s direction, quite stirringly, finds a middle ground to invoke these complex feelings – never rendering Chinese practices and customs as something alien. Instead, there is a dialogue between Chinese and American values, Wang’s writing never pitting them against each other. More important for her is the attempt to reconcile them, despite the real possibility these cultural distances may now be unbridgeable.

It’s in locating this anguish that much of The Farewell’s heavy lifting comes down to Awkwafina. Hers is a wonderful, moving performance that carries the film. Her subdued facial expressions and hunched posture externalise all of Billi’s guilt, pain and confusion. Her English-accented Chinese, which she learnt for the role, adds another layer – each word she speaks rendering her both an insider and an outsider. Best known for her breakout comedic performances in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, Awkwafina remains a master of the quip – providing this film with its much-needed moments of humour, alongside the raw affection shown by Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai.

Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano’s muted, pastel aesthetic feels at home amid the restrained tone of the film. But it does at times come off slightly distancing, particularly when it culminates in some eerie stylistic choices – such as the use of slow-motion and jarring zooms, backed by Alex Weston’s classically inspired choral score. But Wang’s direction ensures the intimacy still seeps through in quieter, contemplative moments, when the film provides glimpses into what’s going on in Billi’s mind: the neon nightlights flashing through the darkness onto her face or when she watches the high-rise buildings through the window of her taxi.

Transcending its hook, The Farewell’s humble, confident magic lies in how exactingly Wang fleshes out her story. Any assumption that being a second-generation Chinese immigrant creates simplistic binaries between the East and West is thrown away, but so too is the promise that this cultural distance can be effortlessly negotiated. The Farewell is a bittersweet recognition of that aching cultural disconnection, and the difficulties of holding multiple contradictory truths. It’s also, more simply, a heart-wrenching tale of familial love and loss. Wang has crafted a remarkable film, even if it hurts a little.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 7, 2019 as "Parting gift".

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Debbie Zhou is an arts and culture critic based in Sydney.

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