For this assignment I watched Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. The film is based on Wang’s own story, her grandmother Nai Nai having been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given three months to live. Her family believed that Nai Nai’s knowledge of this prognosis would summon her death, so they protected her by not telling her about the cancer, and she has subsequently lived an additional six years. One of the characters in The Farewell says, “Chinese people have saying, ‘When people have cancer, they die,’” and explains that it’s not the cancer that kills them but the fear. In the film, the family stages an elaborate fake wedding in China as a ruse to bring all of Nai Nai’s loved ones together to see her once they learn that she may have only a few months to live. However, the main character Billi’s parents try to dissuade her from joining the rest of the family in China because they think she will blow their cover since she is very close to Nai Nai and an emotional person, and she has grown up with American values, so she questions the importance of keeping this news from Nai Nai. Because she is so close to Nai Nai, however, Billi arranges to make the trip herself and shows up in China, creating anxiety for her parents, who have to hide these emotions and communicate them indirectly so that Nai Nai does not perceive these tensions.
The first scene after Billi finds her way to Nai Nai’s house is of a family meal. Billi is overcome with sadness when she first sees Nai Nai and has a difficult time eating. Nai Nai asks, “How can you not be hungry? You’ve been on the road for so long. You must be hungry. Eat this meat pie.” She puts the meat pie up to Billi’s mouth, and Billi takes a bite to show that she’s fine. Her grandmother is satisfied only through the evidence of eating. The family shows that they’re family through the meals they prepare and eat together. Women do the cooking and share family news as they chop, wash, and create dishes. Cooking and eating are supposed to signify that everything, and everyone, is alright. Because eating acts as the strongest evidence of health and well-being, the grief-stricken Billi has to overcome her loss of appetite to fake prove that she and everything are fine.
Throughout the film Wang continues to show the delicate and fragile line between everyone’s performance of wedding joy and reunion for Nai Nai, which the Chinese relatives frame as generous and the American Billi sees as dishonest and possibly harmful, and the deep emotions of loss that seize many of them, often at inconvenient moments. Family members sneak updates about Nai Nai’s condition and create alibi stories for their actions. For example, Billi’s uncle, Nai Nai’s son has acquired special cancer medicine from Japan, which he tells Nai Nai is vitamins. Nai Nai is perceptive about emotions and always seems to be on the verge of finding out about the source of her family’s sadness, but she accepts their awkward explanations, especially when reassured by their eating, which signals normalcy. As Nai Nai urges, “Eat. Eat. Eat.”
Family meals are interwoven with all of the film’s action. Billi’s cousin Hao Hao’s wedding takes place in a banquet hall where the meal is meant to impart the family’s status and grandiosity. Nai Nai insists on serving lobster because a wedding is no time to hold back, but the banquet chef has changed the meal to crab without telling her, leading to a comical fight and the resignation that their family’s status might not be lobster status. In another family dinner scene, relatives argue about whether China or the U.S. is better and reveal the hypocrisy undergirding their criticisms of each country. The cousins arguing that China is better are attached to sending their son to the U.S. for better opportunities, and Billi’s family, who have settled in the U.S. have to absorb the joke that Billi is like a bad stock investment – after all the opportunity handed to her, she’s amounted to nothing in Chinese eyes.
Wang wanted to show through the film the dilemma for Chinese Americans raised with American values but inhabiting extended Chinese families who feel that it is selfish not to carry the emotional burden of a loved one’s illness by dumping it onto them in the form of “truth,” whereas the American side of Billi, the Chinese-American main character, feels that it might be unfair to withhold the truth from Nai Nai, who might want the opportunity to say goodbye to her beloved relatives. Billi starts to understand her family’s motivations and cultural reasons more when, for example, her aunt explains that Nai Nai lied to her husband when he had been diagnosed with cancer, and then she finds out that Nai Nai’s husband lied to Nai Nai about quitting smoking, among other circles of deception/protection. The film takes viewers through the consequences posed by a terminal diagnosis within the clashing frameworks of Chinese and American thinking. In one scene, the family falsifies Nai Nai’s test results before she can see them, and when Nai Nai reads the presented results, she reassures everyone, “I told you I was fine.” The scene cuts to a slow motion scene of the family walking together like a protective army with Billi leading the way, having absorbed the Chinese framework of her extended family.
At the end of the film, Billi and her Nai Nai have to say goodbye to each other, which is wrenching because Billi knows that it may be the last time she sees her Nai Nai, but it is also wrenching because we know from the rest of the film how many years have passed between visits. The physical distance between China and the U.S. is expressed as a kind of grief through the cultural distance between the countries. The goodbye, which extends through a bleak, gray taxi ride in which Billi and her mother exchange affection subtly through longing glances at each other and their own sad worlds and never through physical affection, carries the weight of this dispersed family’s choices, history, profound love for each other, and longing to bridge all of their distances.
I think I would use parts of this film, like the first family meal scene in China, with students as a way to help them to analyze how food or eating is perceived, what purpose it serves, and how people relate to each other through it in China. The dilemma posed through the film is a rich dilemma for students to grapple with, and it reveals really different value systems. Showing a couple of excerpts, like the scene of Billi’s uncle explaining to her that lying about one’s diagnosis means that you are carrying an emotional burden for that person or the scene of the family falsifying Nai Nai’s test results would set the context for a rich class discussion about what our obligations are to each other and how people growing up with different cultural values might see those obligations differently or express love in really different ways.