Movie Review | The Farewell: A Love That Transcends Generations and Borders
The Rock the Boat team recently sobbed its way through a special Gold House screening of The Farewell in NYC, thanks to a Taiwanese American Professionals-sponsored event in NYC.
I was not able to join the team for the screening. Instead, I caught the film on opening day, July 12th, at Angelika Theater. Luckily, I bought an extra set of tissues, and I encourage you to do the same.
The Farewell's Gold Open
Gold House is an organization dedicated to supporting Asian American voices and enhancing the community's legacy. Gold House partnered with AARP to support the opening of The Farewell.
To learn more about Gold Open, listen to our Season 2 episode with Bing Chen, one of the co-founders of Gold House and an architect of the Gold Open movement.
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The Farewell is Lulu Wang’s directorial debut, starring actress and Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina. Wang is a Chinese-American writer, who has worked on films such as Touch and Posthumous. The story depicted in The Farewell is based on her personal life.
Summary: Familial Loss, Reconciliation of Identity, and Boundless Love
The Farewell grapples with familial loss, reconciliation of identity, and boundless love through its protagonist, Billi, a Chinese-born, American-raised writer based in New York City. Short on her month’s rent and newly rejected from the Guggenheim Fellowship, Billi finds out that her paternal grandmother, or Nai Nai, has been diagnosed with cancer. The only person who does not know about this diagnosis is Nai Nai herself.
Grappling with the news, Billi goes to visit her parents at home, only to discover that her Dad supports the family decision to not tell Nai Nai the bad news. Billi’s mom exclaims, “Chinese people have a saying, ‘If you get cancer, you die.’ But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.”
Billi struggles with the hard news. Her family urges her to stay in the States, out of fear that she will release the bad news to Nai Nai. Still, Billi decides to make a surprise visit to see Nai Nai one last time under the pretense of her cousin’s wedding to his Japanese fiancé.
The film ends without a solid conclusion of whether Nai Nai ever finds out about her cancer, but the viewers feel a sense of satisfaction and reconciliation from watching the familial love and journey unfold.
Told through the themes of birds, Billi finds a bird in her room just as she finds out the bad news about her Nai Nai. The birds appear throughout the film as the family discovers various catastrophic events about their Nai Nai. The bird, in many ways, is an omen that not only predicts the near future but also embodies Billi’s own feelings of anxiousness and closeness throughout the film. The film ends with a flock of birds finally flying in the air in China as the family members resume their daily lives.
Tender Love vs. Tough Love
The Farewell packages the emotions of a grieving family through a multigenerational and multicultural lens. The movie balances harsh words with loving gestures, pride of one’s new country with love of one’s cultural identity, and individual wants with community needs. The film packages such concepts and more into one nuanced masterpiece that follows the lives of ten family members spanning across three generations and three countries. However, these differences get blended into one through the unification of the family’s love towards their Nai Nai.
Eastern vs. Western Ideology
The film highlights the challenges of the Chinese diaspora and untangles the meaning of home.
Billi’s uncle, Haibin, relocated to Japan to pursue art while Billi’s father, Haiyan, immigrated to the United States to become a translator. Other family members decided to stay in China, with some opting to send their children overseas. Billi herself was Chinese-born and American-raised. She is seen throughout the movie battling with Eastern and Western tendencies and cycling through conflicting thoughts of her own country.
Billi explains that in the West, this incident of concealing one's illness would be illegal. In the film, her uncle says, “That’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” In addition, her uncle said that by not telling Nai Nai, the family carries the emotional burden rather than Nai Nai herself.
There are instances when Billi’s uncle and mother chime in to note the differences between East and West. In one scene, the uncle exclaims, “You think that one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole. Family.”
In another scene, Billi remembers the area where Nai Nai used to take her to play as a child. As they drive by the locale, Nai Nai gently reminds Billi that it has since been replaced by new developments. Billi longingly looks out of the car window, in acceptance of what has happened.
Whether East or West, the movie balances out the different perspectives with caring familial gestures or phrases. There is a scene in the movie where Billi’s mother scolds Billi for spending money to come home. Yet almost immediately after, she asks Billi how many wontons she wants. It is this balance that gives viewers the sense that the love each member has for one another is the ultimate home. It is a love that transcends generations and borders.