It’s a good lie.
Billi (Awkwafina) heads to her parents’ home to clean laundry after discovering she’s now two months behind on her rent only to hear her father (Tzi Ma‘s Haiyan) is “asleep” … at 6pm. Her mother (Diana Lin‘s Jian) dismisses the time as a byproduct of them being very busy, but she goes to his room to see for herself anyway. Haiyan sits despondent on the bedside, something obviously wrong. When neither can bear her questions anymore (“Did you have a fight? Were you drinking again?”), Jian spills the beans: Billi’s grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao‘s Nai Nai) was diagnosed with cancer in China and given three months to live. Because she’d just spoken to her hours before, Billi’s first instinct is to phone her back. Haiyan begs her to stop.
Why? Because Nai Nai doesn’t know she’s dying. And this is where Lulu Wang‘s The Farewell turns from a generic family reunion of grief to elaborate lie built upon the best of intentions. It’s not some wild anecdotal scenario to earn laughter either. This is exactly what happened when Wang’s own family learned her Nai Nai’s fate almost a decade ago. She went on “This American Life” to recount the drama months before her debut feature Posthumous hit theaters and now she’s immortalized it on the big screen for the world to experience. It’s a clash between West and East, forcing the infirm to carry the burden of her own death versus collectively carrying it for them. She either becomes party to the deceit or misses saying goodbye.
It’s not enough to merely agree to keep Nai Nai in the dark, however. A family that hasn’t been entirely in China for over twenty-five years can’t simply come together without reason to dote on their matriarch and raise suspicions. So another lie must be manufactured to hide the first. And what better disguise for sorrow is there than celebration? Billi’s nuclear triumvirate would travel from America at the same time as Haiyan’s brother (Yongbo Jiang‘s Haibin, who lives in Japan) if the latter’s son Haohao (Han Chen) was getting married to his girlfriend of three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Everyone can book rooms at a hotel, put Nai Nai to work organizing the event on super short notice, and feign excitement to ensure her spirits never fade.
This means they’re on a roller coaster of emotions moving from talk about the future with Nai Nai to the sober and silent walks back to their hotel each evening to recharge and rejoice about happy things again. Nobody is immune to the psychological torture keeping everything bottled up creates either, but some are better at hiding it. Haiyan has spent so much of his life in the United States that it’s difficult to accept the American illegality of what they’re doing, but he will not go against the wishes of his aunt (Hong Lu‘s Little Nai Nai) since she’s the one who will ultimately remain in China to take care of her sister. And while Haibin commends his own bravery, it can only stay intact so long.
To watch that internal war through their expressions is what makes The Farewell such an unforgettable cinematic treat of resonant catharsis because it’s not solely about one person going against the grain. While Billie is obviously the focal point being a stand-in for Wang herself and the most vocally against what her family has decided to do, the others are just as torn despite their ability to put what they consider to be their “duty” first. Haohao’s quiet struggle being the core of this lie is tough to watch because we know a release is inevitable once the wedding day arrives. Little Nai Nai’s business-first attitude is a good front to set a consistent standard for everyone else to follow, but the strain is visible nonetheless.
And while Haiyan and Haibin turn to their vices for distraction, the two strongest voices at the dinner table are quickly reserved for Jian and a younger “Auntie” who never left Asia when starting her family. The cultural clash between America and China is strongest where this dynamic is concerned as the hypocrisy of declaring one place better than the next is laid bare. There appears to be this desire to place blame as far as why their lie is necessary since Nai Nai can’t be expected to stay positive when both her sons have abandoned her for decades. It’s as though those who can pop over anytime to help are searching for a way to absolve their own guilt by placing it all on the “foreigners” instead.
Jian willingly goes along with her in-laws’ decision, but she won’t let her choices or family be disparaged. This is why Diana Lin to me is by far the best piece of the whole. She never backs down from a fight and knows when to take her lumps because she regrets nothing and owes nothing to anyone. It should therefore be no surprise that Billi’s reactions exist as a combination of what Jian and Haiyan feel since she’s the result of their parenting as far as what Chinese cultural imperatives were retained when raising her in this new world. She possesses the same powerful love for Nai Nai that her father does and the pragmatic yearning for intimate truth during hardships rather than hyperbolic theatrics of her mother.
So how does she cope? How does Billi reconcile that which she needs against that which she slowly realizes her grandmother wants despite not having the ability to confirm it? She ultimately must realize that it’s not a matter of choosing one part of herself over the other, but finding the common ground between them in the love she shares with Nai Nai. It’s also in this discovery that she might figure out her own future as an independent woman in New York City who’s endured a rough patch she’s yet to begin escaping. Seeing how her family came together to rally around a common cause proves nothing if not the fact that she isn’t alone. She has people to confide in and people to guide her forward.
Awkwafina might not have been the first name coming to mind where actors able to deliver this nuanced complexity are concerned, but she should be now. Her humor is still present throughout too and actually becomes a boon to the film once the drama of tragedy can no longer be ignored. To Billi this death sentence enters as an excuse to shutdown and lament the reality that the woman she called everyday won’t be picking up that phone forever. And through her family—especially Nai Nai as Zhao confidently stands tall as a matriarch in control with no plans to go elsewhere—she discovers this finality can instead become an excuse to celebrate a life well lived. Love is mighty enough to heal what ails us.
 Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chan Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang. Courtesy of A24
 Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Lu Hong, Chan Han, Aoi Mizuhara. Photo by Nick West. Courtesy of A24
 Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chan Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Li Xiang. Photo by Nick West. Courtesy of A24