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Film / The Farewell

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"Chinese people have a saying: 'When people get cancer, they die. It's not cancer that kills them, it's the fear'."
Lu Jian

The Farewell is a 2019 dramedy written and directed by Lulu Wang, based off of a real incident in her life that she first publicly discussed in her radio story What You Don't Know, later adapted into part of an episode of This American Life.

The film stars Awkwafina as Billi, a Chinese-American aspiring 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.
    • Towards the end of the film when Billi's family leaves for America, Nai Nai is in tears watching them drive away, which indicated that deep down, she knows just why all of her family had that impromptu get together.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: When Nai Nai asks Billi if she got to China by plane, Billi 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 its melancholy subject matter, 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.
    • Billi accuses her parents of being this as well. When they first moved to America, her parents refused to talk about how scared they were to protect her but she could still tell, which only made her more frightened.
  • 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: Billi 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.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: When they first moved to the US, Billi's parents would hide their fears from her rather than discussing them to avoid worrying her. This only worried her more because she knew something was wrong but her parents never told her what. She tearfully calls them out on this as a way of objecting to the lie they're telling her grandmother.
  • 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 romanticize American culture, including her aunt and uncle, which she calls out.
  • 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.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Billi feels like it’s wrong to lie to Nai Nai's by holding her cancer diagnosis from her, but at the same time Billi hasn’t told her parents that her application for a fellowship was rejected.
    • Played for laughs when Nai Nai tells Billi that she should get herself a man, because a woman needs someone to take care of her. When Billi asks if Nai Nai's fairly useless current partner Mr. Li meets that standard, Nai Nai takes her point and says a woman should be able to take care of herself.
  • Inelegant Blubbering: Hao Hao starts uncontrollably sobbing as a result of having too much to drink during his wedding reception, to the point where Billi has to take him to another room to console him.
  • Insult of Endearment: Nai Nai often calls Billi "stupid child!" in an affectionate tone as part of their playful banter.
  • 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 the real Nai Nai is still alive six years later.
  • Large Ham: The professional crier at a funeral near Billi's grandfather's grave.
  • 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.
  • Let Them Die Happy: The family's motive for not telling Nai Nai about her illness. They let her be happy in her final days while shouldering the grief themselves.
  • 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.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The protagonist Billi is a writer, albeit one who’s struggling to get her career off the ground.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Those who want to reveal the secret are reminded that Nai Nai also hid her husband's cancer from him before he died.
  • 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".
  • Painting the Medium: 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.
  • 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.
  • "Rediscovering Roots" Trip: While the family is all together in Changchun, the first-generation Chinese-American Billi expresses a desire to stay in China and reconnect more with her roots and heritage during her grandmother's final days.
  • Retired Badass: Nai Nai fought in the Chinese Civil War.
  • 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. Her son says it can't hurt him because he's already dead, and the least they can do is let him smoke in the afterlife.
  • 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."
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: Although it's based on a true story, so possibly justified. Billi spends the entirety of her China trip painfully coming to understand as best she can that Nai Nai is terminally ill and their life in China is disappearing — but the epilogue reveals that the real Nai Nai is still alive today.
  • 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 studied in England and is presumably familiar with Western medical ethics, 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!