The Farewell (2019) – Summary, Review (with Spoilers)

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The Farewell is a classic. An undeniable, this deserves any hype it gets, needs to be used as an example in film study classes, kind of classic.


Director(s) Lulu Wang
Screenplay By Lulu Wang
Date Released 7/12/2019
Genre(s) Drama, Comedy
Good If You Like
  • Family Drama & Shadiness
  • Seeing Young People Close With Their Elders
  • Complicated Relationships Between a Mother & Their Daughter
  • Gaining A Sense Of One Take On Chinese Culture
Isn’t For You If You Don’t Like Reading Subtitles
Noted Cast
Billi Awkwafina
Nai Nai Shuzhen Zhao
Little Nai Nai Hong Lu
Jian Diana Lin
Haiyan Tzi Ma
Haohao Han Chen
Aiko Aoi Mizuhara

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The Farewell Plot Summary & Review

Billi was 6 when she left Changchun, China with her family for America. Since then, people have died, her grandmother Nai Nai has moved and has seen her former home lost to industrialization. Yet, for now, she remains. However, with Nai Nai reportedly having stage 4 cancer, that becomes a call to action for Billi to return to China, as well as her father Haiyan and mother, Jian. Two people who have a very mixed relationship with Chinese customs now that they are Americanized and, like Billi, struggle with the idea of keeping from Nai Nai the secret that she has terminal cancer.

Highlights

Awkwafina

You know how The Rock is now known as Dwayne Johnson, since he has outgrown his former moniker? The Farewell is the kind of film which pushes the idea Awkwafina could revert to using Nora Lum and not lose the recognition. For while she was entertaining in Crazy Rich Asians as well as Dude and Ocean’s 8, this is the type of role which should change things. What she does in The Farewell, pushes the idea that if we’re given Crazy Rich Asians cred for opening, perhaps cracking the door for Asian Americans, The Farwell kicks it in.

Taking things further, Awkwafina does what a lot of comical actors do. She finds a way to tap into that darkness that is behind most of their jokes. Those feelings of rejection, anxiety, perhaps depression, and rather than dress it up to be consumable, as Billi she taps into her vulnerabilities and uses them. For whether it is Billi addressing her disconnect from her birthplace, the anxiety which comes from the only person alive who you associate with anything joyful from your childhood dying, it hits you. Hell, just to show you how much she got to me, I found myself calling a family member I haven’t talked to in ages because Awkwafina just stirs something in you. Especially after she melts your heart.

Zhao Shuzhen

But, credit has to be given to Shuzhen who plays her grandmother, or Nai Nai. For Nai Nai, on top of being vibrant, has this relationship with Billi which makes you believe she might be the only consistent force in Billi’s life who makes her feel loved and validated. Hence why, even before she learns Nai Nai has cancer, we see Billi talking to Nai Nai, and when Billi’s dad learns, he knows he can’t, or shouldn’t, tell Billi.

Then, when you see Shuzhen and Awkwafina share the same space? You’d swear that even if filming was a little over 24 days, these two had to have shared months, if not more together. Making the idea that Billi could lose the one person we’re introduced to that brings her joy, that can bring her out of slouching and moping around, the idea is devastating.

However, before we move on, let’s not forget Nai Nai outside of her relationship with Billi. Whether it is her being a military veteran, how we see her work as a matriarch, or it being made clear she has a whole life outside of her granddaughter. You have to appreciate the film makes sure Nai Nai’s life doesn’t begin and end with Billi’s showing of concern. For that just adds onto this idea of how finite our time with people can be and why we need to appreciate them. Especially if they bring joy and comfort to our lives.

How Chinese Culture & The Eastern World Sees Family Is Presented

I’m someone who doesn’t find most of the shows and movies I watch dealing with Chinese culture, outside of the soon ending Andi Mack. So while I know The Farewell may very well only represent what Wang was brought up in or aware of, the experience provided helps you get a taste. One which reminds you that as much as there is a difference between individualism and collectivism, there are so many things both sides present which you may want to incorporate.

One example being why everyone doesn’t want Nai Nai to know she has cancer. Beyond stealing her joy, they feel they need to hold onto that burden rather than place it all on her to deal with. Which may sound strange if you live in the western world, but as you watch the film, you get it. While everyone loves Nai Nai, the way they show it deals with not wanting her to bear this suffering, or fear, which, once she knows, it is out of their hands and no matter if they are physically there or connected emotionally, she has to suffer alone. But, if she doesn’t know, but they do, they take on that suffering, as a collective, rather than make than an individual issue.

Which, as someone who was raised in America, northeast at that, seems pure. Granted, it threw me off at first, but while Billi and her father find it selfish, think it should be illegal even, considering Nai Nai is stage four, it seems like the best way to have it so she can die happy. And really, that sacrifice seems more loving than the idea of them extending their stay in China, moving her to America, or any other option you can come up with. For they, alongside Nai Nai’s sister, whose name is Little Nai Nai (Based off Cast List I can find) present a form of love which doesn’t seem foreign because it is based on a culture which isn’t American, but because it is without expecting something in return – its all based on intrinsic motivation.

Jian & Billi’s Relationship

One could say Jian might have been a bit of a tiger mom. The way Billi portrays her, and Jian has to defend, she isn’t the most emotional parent. Her sacrifice of coming to America was so Billi could be successful, and with that not happening yet, she is bitter. So watching these two deal with their different ways of dealing with Nai Nai’s passing, as well as Haiyan’s drinking over his mother, and the stress he is dealing with, challenges an Asian stereotype and humanizes it. Expands on the why and reminds you this method of parenting, whether exclusive to Asian parents, immigrant parents, or something more general than given credit for, is rooted in the hope and dream all you do for your child pays off. For, otherwise, all those extra hours, moving, the strain on your marriage, and your sanity, what was that for if you don’t have this reward? Proof that you knew what you were doing and weren’t sacrificing yourself, even the relationship you could have had with your child, for naught.

On The Fence

There Will Come A Point Where You May Feel The Film Is Starting To Overstay Its Welcome

Within the last 15 or 20 minutes, the screen goes Black two or three times, and you might think it is over – but then the film continues. This doesn’t necessarily make the film feel like it is wearing thin, but it does begin to make you snap out of the stupor you were in and wonder what is there left to cover?

You May Not Get Much, If Anything, Out Of Billi’s Cousin’s Wedding

The ruse for everyone seeing Nai Nai is not built up to be worth taking note of much. Yes, it allows you to see how much Nai Nai loves her family and provides an opportunity to see her face off with people while planning Haohao’s banquet, but it doesn’t offer much beyond that. Well, thinking about it, there are some comical moments which come from Haohao’s girlfriend of three months, Aiko, being Japanese – meaning she doesn’t understand a word of what is going on. But beyond that? It’s a vehicle to get us to the best parts of the film, but not necessarily something worth individual praise.

The Farewell Overall: Positive (Worth Seeing)Recommended

It’s very easy to become jaded, maybe even complacent as you get older and make a hobby out of watching TV shows and movies. Hence why films like The Farewell are so necessary. It pushes past the obligatory praise many non-white films get just for existing. It stakes a claim that its actors, its story, its dialog, the world it builds, deserves to not only be seen but become a standard. Not just for ones which feature people who look like the actors, but in general. For whether you are talking about how it presents culture, relationships between different generations, as well as a changing world, I’d imagine The Farewell making its way into film study books. I can’t say whether it would be for anything technical, but in terms of writing and emotional impact, it deserves that legacy far more than some statue or overblown news articles on its box office receipts.

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