Movie Review: The Farewell

Today I went and saw The Farewell, a beautiful film from the film company A24, and I must say, my eyes are still worn from all the crying I did during this movie. It truly is a tearjerker, and for a good reason. The film, which is the work of director Lulu Wang, is based on a true story in which Lulu’s grandmother died without knowing she had late-stage cancer because her family kept it a secret from her. Billi, played by rapper and actress Awkwafina, is living in New York City and struggling with her career and paying her rent, so she visits her parents, who know she doesn’t have her life together. One night she notices something is going on and her parents are stressed out, and when she asks what is wrong, they tell her that her grandmother is dying of cancer. The film opens with Billi calling her grandmother and asking how she is doing. Even though her grandmother, Nai-Nai, says she is doing well, we see Nai-Nai going through an ultrasound machine to see if she has cancer, and her friend telling her in the waiting room that the cancer isn’t harmful, when in reality, the doctors said the cancer is harmful and she won’t have long to live. When Billi’s parents tell her they are going to China for her cousin’s wedding, she finds out that while the wedding is still going to happen, it is also an occasion for the family to spend time with Nai-Nai before she passes away. When Billi tells her parents that they need to tell Nai-Nai about her cancer diagnosis, they say no because it is customary in Chinese culture to not tell a loved one they are dying of cancer. Billi tells her parents she wants to go to China with them not just to see her cousin get married but to also spend time with Nai-Nai since she doesn’t have long to live. Her parents tell her to stay since they do not think she would be of much use going back to China with them.

But Billi doesn’t give up. She goes to China to see Nai-Nai and runs into her parents at the house. They are disappointed in her throughout their stay, but they let her stay at Nai-Nai’s with them anyway since she insists on staying. During this time, Billi and Nai-Nai develop an incredibly beautiful bond that stands the test of time even when, in reality, Nai-Nai doesn’t have much time to live (one of the best scenes is when Nai-Nai teaches Billi tai-chi). The film deals a lot with the issue of communication and how a lack of communication and honesty impacts not just the individual but everyone around them. Everyone is impacted by the decision to not tell Nai-Nai that she is dying of cancer, and at Billi’s cousin’s wedding, after a joyous game of drinking, he breaks down because he knows that he’s not just at the wedding to celebrate getting married but also there to celebrate the short time that he has with Nai-Nai. Not being allowed to tell Nai-Nai she has cancer also negatively impacts Billi, because she wants to have an open honest relationship with her grandmother but cannot because her parents and their parents frown on getting emotional or expressing grief. One of the most powerful scenes is the dialogue between Billi and her mother in the hotel room. Billi’s mother criticizes her for being too emotional and thinks that she shouldn’t be in China with them because she would get too emotional over Nai-Nai’s deteriorating health, and reveals that her own parents frowned on her for being emotional so she doesn’t want her daughter to face the same kind of criticism. She even says that there are professional cryers at the memorial services so that people don’t have to cry when their loved ones pass, and at the graveyard where Billi’s grandfather is buried, there is a woman who cries for everyone so that they do not have to express grief themselves. This made me reflect on how different cultures face death and handle grief. Some communities treat death by celebrating the person’s life with song and dance and merry-making, while other communities commemorate the person’s life with a serious ceremony. And other cultures encourage people to express their grief through physical gut-wrenching means. My ethnic culture encourages people to grieve, but my spiritual culture encourages people to celebrate the person’s life. My spiritual culture encourages people to shed tears but to also not let grief prevent them from living their lives and celebrating the memories of the deceased person.

But the question I was left with was this: is it bad that the family didn’t tell Nai-Nai about her cancer diagnosis since it was a cultural tradition to not talk about illness and death? How would Nai-Nai have reacted if she knew earlier that she had a cancer diagnosis? Sometimes when people learn early on that they have an illness, they do what they can to make the most of life, while other people suffer in grief and sometimes even end their lives before their illness can end life for them. In the film Billi’s mother says that in Chinese culture, people die not from the cancer itself, but from the fear that comes when they find out they have cancer. These are all important questions that we must deal with at every stage of life. I am rather young, but this film taught me to love the ones closest to me. When I read Nick Hornby’s novel How to Be Good, the main character Katie talked about how her husband and his spiritual doctor tried to do good things for humanity, and yet couldn’t treasure the people closest to them, and Katie mentions that it is easier to be kind to people that we are less familiar with than it is for people in our immediate environment. But The Farewell showed me, through Billi’s relationship with her grandma, that we cannot take people’s time for granted and that we must treasure people while they are still alive. Billi found out a lot about her grandmother, such as her time in the military. At first she encourages Billi to get married, but then later understands that Billi wants to focus on her career. When Billi tells her she didn’t get the fellowship at the Guggenheim she applied for, she confesses that she was worried about telling her grandmother because she didn’t want her to worry about Billi, but Nai-Nai says that it is not necessarily what you do in life that matters, but how you live your life that is important. Nai-Nai wants Billi to embrace her independence because she understands that is what makes Billi happy.

I was searching for articles about the film to better understand for myself the cultural significance of illness in Chinese culture since I personally cannot relate to what Lulu Wang and her family went through, and I found this touching thoughtful piece in The Washington Post by Marian Lu about how The Farewell touched her own life. Lu says that just like Billi’s parents, her dad didn’t let Lu know her grandmother was dying of cancer. This of course impacted Lu tremendously because she never got to have a deeper relationship with her grandmother, and she never got to say goodbye because her family didn’t tell her about her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis until it was too late. Lu later had an honest conversation about this matter with her father, and he tearfully revealed that if he was dying of illness he would want her to let him know of his diagnosis instead of keeping it concealed from him for the sake of preserving family peace. Her father also told Lu that when he found out she had pancreatic cancer and only had six months to live, he told his mother that she had a sickness rather than saying she had a terminal illness, and went to great lengths to get the doctors to give her traditional medicine and other treatments. According to Lu’s article, much of Eastern culture has a holistic approach to illness, one that considers not just physical health, but also one’s emotional and mental state, and is also rooted in community, so one’s diagnosis doesn’t just affect the person with the illness, it affects everyone in the family as well. When someone feels stressed or sad after finding out they have cancer, this emotional response affects everyone in the family, and so a lot of Asian students, according to Asian American Psychological Association president Helen Hsu, do not learn about their relatives’ deaths because their parents want them to focus on their studies and not get caught up in the complex emotions surrounding the relative’s death. However, not knowing about her grandmother’s diagnosis hurt Lu and her family down the road even though it was tradition to not tell her grandmother, and Lu, in the piece, reflects on the fact that she never got to ask her grandmother for advice on marriage and having children, or even taste her recipes, or even talk about her journey as an immigrant to the U.S. When Lu saw The Farewell, she saw her life onscreen, and says in the piece that while she normally doesn’t cry during movies, she cried during this one because it is something that she and many other Asian American youth have had to struggle with in their families.

Even though I do not come from the same ethnic culture as Lu, or Lulu Wang or Billi, I could not stop crying during the film. This is why I love A24’s drama films so stinking much. Moonlight made me cry. A Ghost Story made me cry. Lady Bird definitely made me cry, bringing back memories of my teenage self even though I didn’t have all of the same experiences as the lead protagonist. And even though The Spectacular Now and The Lobster didn’t make me cry, they made me think long after the movie was over. A24 is good at making films that make you think and reflect on what it means to live as a human being, and illustrates how, even during the toughest struggles, individuals can find this indescribable beauty in life whatever age they are at. Combined with the incredibly beautiful combination of string quartet and voice for the score, and the deeply contemplative subject matter, as well as the trademark silences of A24 films (those moments where the characters don’t have to say anything and are free to express their pain, happiness, mixed feelings solely through their body language), I had used up my entire wad of tissues and my eyes were puffy and red, so much I think I got an eyelash in them from crying so much. I convulsed with so many tears throughout the film because I knew the grandmother was dying, and even though I understand it was cultural tradition to not have open discussions about illness and death in front of dying relatives, it was still sad to know that this young woman, whose grandmother helped her understand her roots and her place in the world, is dying and she cannot tell her because no one wants her to. Even though some reviewers dismissed it as ridiculous that the family didn’t tell the grandmother about her diagnosis (instead of opening with the cliche “based on a true story” the film caption is “based on an actual lie”), it’s not ridiculous, and as Marian Lu illustrated in her piece, is quite common in real life. Speaking from my own life, even though I am not from the same ethnic background as Lulu or Marian, I have noticed that when people find out they have illness they get depressed, and people spend money trying to cure them of their illness through all kinds of pills and treatments. Some people, famous or not, have killed themselves when they found out they had a physical illness; their depression from having the illness, not just their cancer or their Parkinson’s, killed them (a lot of people say that Robin Williams’ diagnosis of Lewy body disease played a significant role in his depression and his subsequent suicide) While I am not saying those treatments are bad, death is going to come whether we want it to or not, and while it is a hard truth to confront, it is inevitable and we need to feel okay talking about illness and death with each other so that people with the illness don’t have to wonder why everyone around them is so tense and won’t tell them what is really wrong. I used to get very stressed out when it came to illness and death with my loved ones, but as I have gotten older, I have come to understand that the only constant in life is change. We cannot bring our physical accomplishments with us when we die; even Aretha, the Queen of Soul, is buried under a heap in the ground even with her super successful career. We are all going to die at some point, so it’s not enough to say you are going to live life to the fullest, but how you and your family are going to confront the inevitability of illness. In Buddhism, we believe that there are four stages of human life: birth, aging, sickness and death, and no one, not even the most successful, most youthful looking people, can escape death. The only thing we can do is change our attitude towards illness and death and how we cope with them.

I admit I was rather apathetic about seeing The Farewell. I love Awkwafina in her roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians as well as her music videos, including her video for “Green Tea” where she is rapping with comedian Margaret Cho. But this is the first film I have seen where Awkwafina acts in a lead role, let alone a powerful drama. In one interview, Lulu Wang said she was at first hesitant about casting Awkwafina in The Farewell because even though she loved her rap videos (this was before Awkwafina starred in Crazy Rich Asians, another excellent film) she didn’t think Awkwafina could play a serious role, but then Awkwafina sent in her audition tape with a couple of scenes from the script and Wang immediately then knew she would be the fit for the part of Billi. It kind of reminds me of Melissa McCarthy because many people didn’t think she could act in dramas because she has usually starred in films where she plays goofy characters who fall on stairs, curse and hit people in the groin. But after seeing her in Can You Forgive Me? She nailed that role so hard, and even now I wouldn’t mind seeing it a second time because her acting is out-of-this-world amazing and she played the writer Lee Israel so well it made me want to see more dramas with her in them (she’s going to be in a new film called The Kitchen, although I probably won’t have the stomach to see it since it is supposed to be a violent film about crime during the 1970s). Likewise, I would love to see Awkwafina in more drama films. I love her in comedies, but in this film her acting is so powerful and moved me to tears. In short, girlfriend can act.

The Farewell. 2019. 1 hr 38 min. Rated PG for thematic material, brief language and some smoking.

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