By Emily Lu ’24 for Fall 2020 Issue
As a regular moviegoer, I have never looked forward to watching a movie as much as I did for The Farewell. For one, I was ecstatic that it had an entire cast of people of Asian descent. For another, I was tired of watching productions that prioritized CGI, action, and exploding things over the nuances of everyday life and storytelling.
As someone who grew up in China, I was curious about how Lulu Wang, someone who has spent the majority of her life in the U.S., would tell a story about a Chinese family. In retrospect, I am beyond impressed with Lulu Wang’s attention to detail and her thorough understanding of Chinese customs and culture. Everything felt so real, and everything flowed together so seamlessly that there was not a moment when I questioned the film’s authenticity.
The story follows Billi, a young artist in Brooklyn who moved from China to the United States as a “1.5 generation” immigrant. Billi discovers that Nai Nai (her grandmother) has been diagnosed with terminal stage lung cancer and that the whole family is throwing a fake wedding as an excuse to see Nai Nai for the last time before her imminent death—why? Because the family wants Nai Nai to remain blissfully ignorant of her diagnosis. The main story arc reflects several elements of Chinese culture that may be unfamiliar or incomprehensible to foreigners. To me, they were the perfect display of collectivism, the familial involvement in an individual’s personal health, and the prevalent acceptance of white lies. The entire family schemed up a wedding, planned out all events that preceded the wedding, and paid all sorts of expenses for food and entertainment just to make up a believable excuse to see Nai Nai for the last time. On one level, this excuse took collective effort to carry out, but on a deeper level, the entire family is saving Nai Nai from the emotional and mental burden that she will experience if she knew about her imminent death and sharing that burden among themselves. To me, this is nothing shocking. Filial piety is a virtue of utmost importance in Chinese culture: sons and daughters are expected to care for their parents after they grow up as a way to “return” the love and nourishment they received from their parents. With this in mind, all I see here is a family of sons and daughters with their sons and daughters taking care of the eldest matriarch of the family in the way that they knew best.
One especially poignant scene almost made an otherwise emotionless person like me succumb to tears. In dialogue with her mother, Billi talks about the struggles, the utter cluelessness, and the pressures that she experienced after moving to the U.S. as a child:
“You know, one of the few good memories of my childhood were the summers at Nai Nai’s. They had that garden. Ye Ye and I would catch dragonflies. And then we just moved to the States. Everything was different. Everyone was gone. And it was just the three of us.”
Every word tugged at my heartstrings. Billi’s lines elucidated the vague, perpetual emptiness that I felt when I first moved to the States. I missed the vivacious clamor at family meals and holiday celebrations; the adventures that my friends and I went on to explore the school’s “off-limit” places; the convenience stores that sold my favorite afterschool snacks, and so much more. Watching The Farewell reminded me of not only the cultural virtues and customs of a country intimately far away but also of memories that I have made in that country long ago.