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Film / The Farewell

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"A person's life is part of a whole. Family"
The Farewell is a 2019 Dramedy written and directed by Lulu Wang, based off of a real incident in her life and adapted from an episode of This American Life.

It stars Awkwafina as Billi, an aspiring Chinese-American writer who gets the news that her grandma ("Nai Nai," Chinese for "father's mother") is dying of lung cancer. However, she also learns that her Nai Nai doesn't know she has cancer; the family has decided to keep the news secret from her to let her live her last days in peace. On top of that, they've organized a wedding in China between Billi's cousin Hao Hao and his girlfriend Aiko in order to allow everyone to see Nai Nai one last time. What follows is a series of misunderstandings and Dramatic Ironies as Billi heads to China and grapples with the moral weight of the family's lie.

Previews: Trailer.


The Farewell contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Some of the conversations at the wedding reveal that Nai Nai fought alongside her comrades against the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War. She even got wounded in combat!
  • The Alcoholic: Billi's father Haiyan is a fairly realistic depiction of one, at one point drinking until he passes out. While he's been able to avoid alcohol for years, his mother's situation causes him to relapse, though this is played for humor rather than drama.
  • Altar the Speed: Hao Hao and Aiko have only dated for three months, but the family influences them to get married right away because they need an excuse to get the family together for Nai Nai.
  • Ambiguous Situation: At the wedding, Billi's mother Jian asks her aunt (called Little Nai Nai by everyone) what she plans to do with her life after Nai Nai has died. Little Nai Nai tells her that she will reunite with her husband who works in another city, and after he retires, they will travel around the world. Jian tells her she'd be happy to host her in New York whenever she comes to the US, with Little Nai Nai saying that would be great, and not to worry about her so much. The look on Jian's face after the conversation clearly shows she has no idea whether Little Nai Nai is lying to her like everyone is lying to Nai Nai.
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  • Ask a Stupid Question...: When Nai Nai asks Bili if she got to China by plane, Bili teasingly answers, "I swam".
  • Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: Presumably the reason for Billi's "shit" early in the movie. Though the movie isn't exactly for kids with it's melancholy subject matter and being mostly in Mandarin Chinese, not much occurs that would warrant higher than a G rating aside from perhaps the alcohol drinking.
  • Bad Liar: Billi's parents initially tell her to stay in New York, because she doesn't know how to hide her emotions and her face would give them away. She does go to China and has some near slips, but Nai Nai doesn't catch on.
  • Based on a True Story: "Based on an actual lie". Writer/director Lulu Wang and her family really did lie to Nai Nai about her cancer diagnosis. According to an interview with NPR, since Nai Nai is still alive six years after they thought she was going to die, Wang and her family have even had to lie to her about the subject of this film to maintain the charade.
  • Big Applesauce: Billie and her parents live in New York City, although they (of course) leave after the first fifteen minutes or so to go to China.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Downplayed. Billi's family lightly squabble over cultural differences and life goals, but they clearly love each other and especially Nai Nai. However, there are also a lot of Cryptic Background References to Haiyan struggling with alcoholism and Billi's parents seem to have been deeply unhappily married at one point.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The future for Nai Nai is uncertain, but so far the real-life person she was inspired by has greatly outlived her prognosis and is still alive as of the film's release.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: The movie makes arguments for and against the idea of keeping Nai Nai's cancer from her. Both sides make some good points and though in the end they don't tell her, the movie doesn't seem to firmly take a side on which choice would be better ultimately.
  • Breaking Bad News Gently: The theme of Haiyan's joke about a woman’s dead cat.

  • Child of Two Worlds: Billi was born in China but moved to the United States at age six. Throughout the movie, she has trouble reconciling her childhood memories and love for her family with the American values she's been raised in.
  • Culture Clash: The main theme of the movie, but not exactly Played for Drama.
  • Dramatic Irony: The crux of the plot. Nai Nai is the only character unaware that she has a terminal diagnosis, a fact that the rest of her family is hiding from her and struggling to deal with.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Billi's dad Haiyan has always struggled with a drinking problem, and the stress of him dealing with his mother's terminal illness contributes to him falling off the wagon.
  • Due to the Dead: Some interesting Chinese mourning and funeral customs are shown or discussed, such as the hiring of professional mourners to cry for a loved one. At the grave of Nai Nai's late husband, the family prays and offers up food, drink, a cigarette, and paper effigies of worldly goods such as an iPhone.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: Deconstructed, as Billi is never really sure which is her "foreign" culture. Many people she meets in China do fetishize the US, including her aunt and uncle, which she calls out.
  • Fun with Subtitles: A subtle example. Whenever Billi hears a word or phrase in Mandarin that she doesn't understand, the film's subtitles show that part in untranslated Mandarin until some other character explains or translates the term for her.
  • Funny Background Event: At the pre-wedding photoshoot for Hao Hao and Aiko, Billi and Nai Nai are in the foreground talking, while in the background part of the backdrop behind Hao Hao and Aiko starts falling apart.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier:
    • Nai Nai doesn't understand English, so Billi and others use it to talk about her illness right in front of her without her knowing.
    • Since Aiko doesn't understand Mandarin, Nai Nai can get away with badmouthing her even in her presence.
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Hao Hao starts uncontrollably sobbing as a result of having too much to drink during the wedding reception, to the point where Billi has to take him to another room to console him.
  • Irony: The movie revolves around Nai Nai's family struggling with whether or not to tell her that she's dying of cancer. The first shot of the end credits reveals that Nai Nai is still alive six years later.
  • Language Barrier:
    • Aiko, the fiancée of Billi's cousin Hao Hao, cannot understand most of the Mandarin conversations around her because she only speaks Japanese.
    • Nai Nai, meanwhile, does not understand conversations in English.
  • Locked Out of the Loop:
    • Billi's parents don't tell her that Nai Nai has cancer until she confronts them and demands to know what's wrong. At first they don't want to tell her because they think she won't be able to keep the secret.
    • The whole family keeps Nai Nai's cancer a secret from her, as well as the fact that the wedding is just an excuse for everybody to come see her one last time.
    • Later, Billi learns that Nai Nai told the same lie to her husband when he became sick, not telling him until shortly before he died.
  • Insult of Endearment: Nai Nai calls Billi "stupid child!", especially whenever she gets particularly happy with her.
  • Overly Long Gag: Uncle Haibin escorting Billi to the hotel, telling her a bunch of stuff about the Nai Nai situation she already knows, and her repeatedly saying "I know".
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Billi is one, albeit not a successful one.
  • Not So Different:
    • Billi is uncomfortable with keeping Nai Nai's cancer from her but she hides her rejection from a fellowship from her parents.
    • Nai Nai also hid her husband's cancer from him before he died.
  • Prone to Tears: Hao Hao is of a sensitive temperament and often looks sad. His losing streak in the drinking game at the wedding turns into a bit of a scene when he starts crying for reasons unclear.
  • Running Gag:
    • At the start of the movie, Billi's great-aunt tells Nai Nai that the doctor found only "benign shadows". Over the course of the film, various characters ask what that even means.
  • Skewed Priorities: When they visit Nai Nai's husband's grave, one of his sons places a lit cigarette on his grave. Nai Nai tells him that her husband can't smoke, it's bad for him. He notes that the man is already dead, he should be allowed to smoke after going through that.
  • Starving Artist: Billi is not making money as a writer. At the beginning she reads that her application for a fellowship was denied, and she's behind on rent.
  • Stepford Smiler: Everyone except Nai Nai and Mr Li, as they don't know about Nai Nai's diagnosis. This is Played for Drama as it is discussed as part of the cultural barrier between China and the USA.
  • Stepford Snarker: Billi is both, her snarking is her preferred method of dealing with Nai Nai's illness.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Billi especially, but discussed as an unavoidable part of moving from China to another country, as most of the family has. Billi's aunt plans to send Bao to school in America, and Hao's family lives in Japan.
    In America, we couldn't do this. We wouldn't be allowed.
  • Values Dissonance: Discussed in-universe. The collective decision of the family is to hide Nai Nai's terminal diagnosis from her because the Chinese believe it's kinder for the sufferer to be blissfully unaware before they die, rather than fearful and helpless. Billi with her American sensibilities feels it's wrong to decieve a loved one like that, and everyone acknowledges that such a thing would be illegal in America, but her uncle Haibin points out that they're not in America. The Chinese way is for the whole family to bear the burden of Nai Nai's diagnosis rather than her alone. Even the doctor in the hospital, who's studied in England, explains to Billi that the Chinese medical establishment plays along with this practice. The movie doesn't necessarily say who is right.
  • Wham Shot: The first shot of the end credits is actual home movie footage revealing that Nai Nai—both real and dramatized—is still alive!


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