Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is one of those dramatic works that manages to hit from all angles. It doesn’t just provide a singular experience but rather a multilayered story that has the power to heal and open one’s eyes to a much larger world. The bittersweet story has a universal appeal through Wang’s subtle storytelling abilities.
Based on Wang’s own life experience, The Farewell stars Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s 8) as Billi, a young woman caught between countries. She doesn’t know how to identify with American culture as a 20-something living in New York. But she also doesn’t agree with some Chinese customs, specifically when a family decides to protect their relatives from realizing they are terminally ill.
When Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai (an Oscar-worthy Shuzhen Zhao), is diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, the family decides to withhold the truth. The belief is that “it’s fear that kills, not cancer.” To shift the attention away from the reality of the situation (but not miss out on the opportunity to spend time with Nai Nai in her final three months), the family puts on a fake wedding for one of Billi’s cousins.
There’s a cultural tug-of-war going on in The Farewell. The perspectives from both sides of the coin make for a compelling viewing experience. Audiences will feel as conflicted as Awkwafina’s character. On the one hand, American sensibilities begin to creep in, and you ask: “Why would you keep the truth from someone? That’s wrong.” But on the other, once you get to know Billi’s family, you feel as though this is the only way it should happen.
During a Q&A that I recently moderated at a screening of The Farewell, Wang said it was important for her to not lean too heavily on one end of the spectrum and focus instead on the truth of her story.
“My story was Billi’s need for catharsis — her need for closure. I think it’s such an American thing,” Wang said. “When you develop a script in America, that’s what your collaborators want: American weighs in. When my Nai Nai collapsed and went to the hospital, I wrestled with the idea of deciding whether to tell her or not. In the film, the family is very practical in trying to let life go on. They want Nai Nai to enjoy her life with ease and comfort. So, it was important to capture that.”
Most of the film’s relatability comes from Wang’s profound specificity as a storyteller. The Farewell captures the story’s emotions with great detail, giving many of its themes a universal quality. It’s not common to have a filmmaker so young in their career to display this level of understanding, but here I am, in awe of Wang’s abilities.
“I don’t think I realized [my abilities as a storyteller] until the film was released. When I was working on the film, the job was to collaborate. They would ask me what matters and to explain certain things, but I always thought that I needed to explain. I went with my guts on that,” Wang said. “For example, the wedding doesn’t look like a Western wedding. The wedding is at noon. Why is that? There’s no explanation, and you don’t need that. I wanted it to be an immersive experience for everyone, like it was for me. It’s hard to see if that resonates with people until they watch it.”
Anna Franquesa Solano’s meditative cinematography elevates the film’s emotions. Never does it feel like the camera is trying to manipulate its audience. Whenever Billi notices a family member reacting a certain way, it unfolds naturally. There are no fast zooms to sell the feeling further. It’s got a European-like aesthetic that gives the narrative a lived-in feel.
“In terms of the static framing, [Solano and I] make obvious references to [the work of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.] We spoke more about the theme of the film as opposed to references, however. The camera can help to support that theme,” Wang said.
One of the themes of the film is the way this family performs for Nai Nai throughout her illness. Wang spoke about how actors perform their characters, but in this case, it was taken a step further. The characters are also performing for Nai Nai.
“They are performing a wedding and joy,” Wang said. “We wanted to have these static frames to represent the theatricality of actors performing on stage. And we used wide lenses to capture the landscape of a family.”
The concept of using a wide lens sees the family members (almost) spilling out of the frame. Whenever Wang and Solano occupy the frame with just Billi or Nai Nai, the feeling of isolation feels more tangible. You feel that lack whenever the family is removed from the picture.
Wang fought to keep the film as authentic to real-world experiences as possible. Whether it was in her casting, shooting on location in China, or working with talents from other places around the globe — including Solano, who is a Spanish cinematographer.
“I don’t think I set out to make an Asian film or an Asian American film. In China, I’m not Asian American, I’m just Chinese. Some people here tell me to go back to my country,” Wang said. “I don’t think I can properly showcase an Asian American, no matter what story I feel will be me. That said, it’s important to have representation on screen as well as behind. I’ll always find a way to show what the world looks like through casting.”
Don’t let The Farewell‘s subject matter fool you. It’s a rewarding film for the ages. It has its tears, undoubtedly; but it also has many laughs and uplifting moments to carry you through your own obstacles. Allow its wonder and magic to bandage your life wounds. It can nurture and spread the love.
The Farewell is now playing regional theaters, including the Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano, and AMC NorthPark 15 in Dallas.