Synopsis: A Chinese-American woman, Billi, returns to China with her family to visit her ailing grandmother. In spite of Billi’s objections, the family decides against informing the old matriarch of the severity of her illness.
Writer-director Lulu Wang’s latest film, The Farewell, is a study of Eastern and Western cultural differences and how they effect a young Chinese-American woman, Billi. We learn that people all around the world can make themselves unhappy. And that the movie’s star Awkwafina can do much more than rap about her genitals, as she did on “My Vag.”
Billi’s parents left China for NYC when she was just five. She may have been a happy child, but now she is a gloomy millennial who tromps from her place, where she reads rejection letters (no Guggenheim fellowship), to the laundromat, where she explains to a roomie that she’ll soon have the overdue rent (no sympathy from the white girl), to her parents’ place where she learns that her paternal grandmother –or Nai Nai in Mandarin– has terminal cancer and will likely pass in just a few months. Gloomy already, Billi quickly shifts into morose gear.
Billi’s dad, her uncle who lives with his wife and son in Japan, and her great-aunt in China decide that it is best if Nai Nai doesn’t learn the hard truth about her condition. Her parents explain that, in China, tradition holds that such bad news could hasten a person’s death. Instead, they will stage a fake wedding as an excuse for their visit. Billi’s Chinese-Japanese cousin and his girlfriend are willing to be the fake wedding couple. Bad idea. Billi’s parents are afraid that her dour expression and American obsession with honesty will upend their plan. They ask her to stay home. Good idea.
But, no, Billi has no job and no prospects, so she will go and spread her melancholy from NYC to Changchun, China.
I love to take movie trips and was excited about visiting this city of nearly eight million people situated in northeastern China. Fortunately, this is the real deal and not Vancouver masquerading as yet another place that it is not.
Did you know that Changchun is sometimes referred to as the “Detroit of China”? But since China produces more cars than the U.S. and Japan combined, maybe it should be called the “Shanghai of Northern China.”
Did you know that Changchun is also the birthplace of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize?
Back to Billi… When she arrives at her Nai Nai’s apartment in Changchun, the entire family — her parents, Uncle with his wife and grown son (the groom) and the Chinese relatives–are gathered around Nai Nai. Billi slumps into the room looking like she just learned that grandma could die any minute. Stop it, Billi! Stop acting so American, like everything is about you, and plaster a fake smile on your face!
Billi does manage to keep quiet about Nai Nai’s grim diagnosis. But the family knows that she is not to be trusted; after all, misery loves company and Billi has just lost out on a fellowship. While Nai Nai cheerfully bustles about, they try to explain that 4,000 years of Chinese tradition tells them that it is better for the family to bear the burden of the bad news, not the grandmother. Nai Nai’s sister tells her that the black spots on the x-ray are “benign shadows.” Billi’s uncle gives her “vitamins” from Japan.
On one occasion, Billi accompanies Nai Nai outside on a sunny day. Granny demonstrates her exercises which consist of some determined air punches while shouting ‘Ha!’ Happy Nai Nai says her exercises keep her healthy. Billi frowns…I was afraid I would have to dive through the screen and tackle Billi to stop her from shouting “YOU’RE DYING RIGHT NOW, NAI NAI!”
Much of the time that we are in China is spent with preparations for the fake wedding. Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend try to play their roles with enthusiasm. They want to do this for the family. An American would never do this for family. Maybe for a Porsche. Or a trip to Hawaii.
Unlike Billi, I tried to have fun at the wedding. I would certainly enjoy karaoke, singing the Fugee’s “Killing Me Softly” with Billi’s dad. Or smilingly chatting with Nai Nai. But I admit there was a moment when I felt downcast like Billi. The wedding feast was full of icky clawed and armored sea creatures. My Western stomach panicked. Where the hell were the sweets? Glutinous rice globs? Bitter leaf jelly cubes? Blech! No. I need the cakes, cookies, doughnuts, cupcakes and cookies that Americans have fattened themselves on in the New World. And I thought China was civilized!
Maybe Billi was right about the American way of telling sick people to have no hope. Especially if they have no health insurance. But Billi’s Nai Nai was happy, even though her grown sons lived in America and Japan. She stayed merry whether she was reflecting on her days soldiering in the Red Army or force feeding Billi savory pancakes.
Wherever you live, you can choose optimism like Nai Nai or pessimism like Billi. If you want to feel down, read “Team Billi.” If you want to feel like up, read “Team Nai Nai.”
Team Billi: Liu Xiaobo was a political prisoner in China when he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” He dedicated his award to the Tiananmen Square victims…
Trump Administration officials argued in court that children detained at the US-Mexico border and placed in custody do not require access to soap, towels, toothpaste & toothbrushes or blankets to meet standards of “safe and sanitary conditions.” (Aug. 2019)
Team Nai Nai: Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation raises money to benefit children with cancer. It was started by Alexandra Scott who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the age of one. Not long after a bout of treatment when she was just four years old, Alex told her mom that she wanted to set-up a lemonade stand and use the money to “help other kids” with cancer…
In an effort to save the African elephant from extinction, China banned the sale/trade of ivory. World Wildlife reports less consumer interest in ivory and a decline in shops selling ivory in China. (Dec. 2017)
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Heartfelt and incisive, the story unfolds without forcing the humor or drama. Shuzhen Zhao is superb as the grandmother/ Nai Nai.
Humor Highlight: Grandma’s bossing and fussing over wedding details