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The Farewell Film Review

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Sarah Lee-Park
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The Farewell Film Review

The Farewell- Movie Review


Synopsis


The Farewell is about a modern day Chinese family who receives news of the terminal illness of their matriarch, Nai Nai, via her sister.  Nai Nai’s two sons, Haibin and Haiyan, live in Japan and America respectively and decide to go back to China to be with their mother. The family decides to keep the bad news to themselves and gather together one last time in China in order to spend time with her under the guise of a fake wedding of Nai Nai’s only grandson Hao Hao to his Japanese girlfriend Aiko. The main character Billi, played by Awkwafina, is very troubled by this family deception and spends the movie trying to reconcile her grief with the family’s decision to protect Nai Nai from knowing about her impending death. Although Billi’s parents tell her to stay in America and not return to China, Billi goes against her family’s wishes and shows up shortly after the family gathers in Nai Nai’s home.  As everyone feared, Billi is unable to hide her true feelings and is unable to greet her grandmother cheerfully.  But, under  the threat of being sent away, Billi decides to pretend that nothing is wrong. 

 

Throughout the movie, Billi argues with her parents and other family members, trying to convince them to tell Nai Nai the truth about her terminal illness.  But each time, Billi’s family, block her and argue that not telling Nai Nai the truth is the best expression of love and protection. Meanwhile, Nai Nai is thrilled to have all her family together, the first time in 25 years.  She plans Hao Hao’s wedding, sparing no expense, while Hao Hao and Aiko dutifully follow along with all her plans.  Nai Nai is blissfully unaware and even criticizes the young couple for being unaffectionate throughout the festivities.  Billi can barely keep her composure and uses evey opportunity to challenge the family’s decision to hide the truth from Nai Nai.  But even the doctor in the hospital is complicit with this plan and tells Billi that what her family is doing is what the majority of families in China would do in the same circumstance.  He states that his own family did the same when his grandmother was ill. And then remarks that she has passed away when Billi asks him how she is doing. 


One by one, the family members show their sadness for Nai Nai’s illness as it cracks through their facades one by one. But as they do this in turns and cover for each other as their composure cracks, they are, remarkably, able to keep Nai Nai in the dark, all acts of sentimentality passing for deep familial affection and emotion from the nuptials and family gathering.  The climax, rather anticlimactically, shows Billi abruptly leaving the wedding festivities in order to intercept Nai Nai’s test results, which Nai Nai’s caregiver has gone to the hospital to fetch.  Unable to decipher the Chinese characters, Billi breathlessly asks what the paperwork says only to be told by the caregiver that she can’t read either.  Billi takes the test results and together with her great aunt, Nai Nai’s younger sister, has a counterfeit document made stating that the dark shapes on her scan are merely “benign shadows” and are completely harmless.  Thus, again, Nai Nai is protected from the knowledge of her stage four lung cancer.  The movie ends with Billi and her family getting in a taxi to go to the airport to return home to the States.  Billi holds Nai Nai in a long embrace and gets into the cab with her parents and they drive away… exhausted from their efforts as Nai Nai’s figure gets smaller in the rearview.


Love and attachment

From the beginning to the end of the movie, the love and attachment of the family members for Nai Nai is apparent.  Regardless of the way each member of the family showed it, there was love, respect and concern for Nai Nai throughout.  Even Billi’s mother, who complains about her mother in law and seems the least attached, shows every effort to maintain the peace of mind and comfort of Nai Nai throughout their visit.  Lu Jian, Billi’s mother, explains to Billi that just because she doesn’t cry and show grief openly, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel it.  Lu Jian criticizes the Chinese custom of hiring mourners to cry loudly at funerals and memorials as fake and vehemently denounces it to Billi and her husband.  But when the family goes to visit Billi’s grandfather’s grave to perform Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day), Lu Jian dutifully complies with the “fake” mourning practices which shows her willingness to show proper duty and respect despite her personal feelings.  


Haibin and Haiyan decide that the greatest act of love for Nai Nai would be in keeping their mother in ignorance as long as possible.  Indeed, Haiyan, the younger brother Billi’s father, has doubts about lying to Nai Nai but ultimately decides that he cannot go against the family’s wishes. This way, she can live her life without worry and minimize the suffering caused by the cancer until the end of her illness.  In their minds, sparing her the knowledge of her illness is the greatest act of care and kindness; they believe that their duty is to bear all the pain and sorrow of her condition for her and hiding it from her is the deepest sign of love and protection they can offer her.  The sacrifice of their own feelings to protect hers is their filial duty.


Billi and Hao Hao, both deeply attached to their grandmother but further removed from the older traditions, struggle to hide their feelings from their Nai Nai.  On his wedding day, overcome with grief and unable to hold back after becoming intoxicated during the reception, Hao Hao begins to sob uncontrollably; this is his biggest outburst and shows that even though he seems to go along with his father’s plans he is holding back the same doubts and sorrow that Billi fights with throughout the film. This wordless scene conveys the deep love and connection the two grandchildren have for their dying grandmother and the connection they feel with each other through their unspoken grief.



Structure


The way the film is structured, gives a distinctly raw feeling to the storytelling.  The set is cluttered and unpolished.  The scenes cut in and out without smooth transitions.  It has the feel of a rough documentary rather than a skillfully crafted film. Yet the storytelling is clear and despite the lack of big screen cinematography, the staging is effective and conveys emotion without it feeling contrived or fake. It is hard to track the passage of time in the film, it could be days or weeks… rather than a series of scenes that run seamlessly from one to the other, they play more like a series of vignettes, little slices of life so that the audience can see little bits and pieces of the family dynamic and the unfolding of Nai Nai’s character that shows why she is so valued and venerated by her family, especially Billi.




Cultural Difference Between East and West


The big conflict that keeps being brought up in the film is the difference between the customs and culture of the East vs the West.  It is first brought up by Billi’s mother in a conversation they have about Lu Jian’s stoic, almost hardhearted, attitude about Nai Nai’s illness.  Billi says to her mother that she could be more compassionate or show some emotion.  In the background, Lu Jian is undressing and putting her intoxicated husband to bed.  On the surface, this scene make Lu Jian seem matter of fact and cold.  But looking at it from her perspective, the audience is shown that Lu Jian’s stoicism is part of her Eastern duty to maintaining control and dignity in the face of tragedy.  When Haiyan gives into his grief with his bouts of drinking and barely controlled displays of melancholy, Lu Jian holds it all together.  She tells Billi, that when her father (maternal grandfather) died, she also felt sad.  But she didn’t scream and cry like Billi but held her emotions in and refused to fall apart.  This indicates that not all grief is for display.  She maintains the facade that keeps Nai Nai in the dark, even while Billi and even Haiyan struggle to compose themselves.  This, in her way, is Lu Jian’s show of filial duty to her mother in law.


Because Billi and her family have lived in America for 25 years, Haiyan also struggles with keeping the truth from his mother.  Each time Billi assails him with her arguments to tell her because she should know and she should be able to say her goodbyes, Haiyan tries not to waver, saying he can’t go against her his family.  Yet it is clear that he does feel conflicted.  However, Haibin, Billi’s uncle and the eldest son, tells Billi that there is a difference between the East and West.  Billi, with her Western sensibilities and influences, believes that telling Nai Nai the truth is right and that she should be able to say a proper farewell to her family and get her affairs in order.  Haibin tells Billi that in the West, one’s life belongs to oneself.  But in the East, one person is part of the whole, the family, society.  He tells her that her desire to tell Nai Nai is selfish, that its goal is to relieve herself of guilt.  But in keeping the truth from her, the burden of Nai Nai’s illness is borne by her family and she is spared the worry and fear.  In truth, it will spare her the worst parts of her illness.  Nai Nai’s sister reveals that Nai Nai herself  didn’t tell her husband he was terminally ill until the very end.  Billi grapples with this philosophy that protects the loved one but places such burden and pain on those who remain.  In the end, Billi also 


Overview


Overall, The Farewell tells a beautiful story of family love and devotion.  It tells of putting yourself and your wants and needs below that of another.  Most of all, it tells of collective burden bearing.  I watched this film multiple times to grasp the nuance and the beautiful moments between Nai Nai and Billi.  It was heartbreaking to see the grief and sadness in the family members as they said their farewells to Nai Nai.  Despite my western perspective, I could also see the reasoning behind trying to protect Nai Nai and give her the happiest memories of a family reunion without tainting it with the sadness of her terminal prognosis.  The director’s own grandmother about whom this film is based actually was still alive at the time this film made its debut, six years after her terminal cancer diagnosis.  So maybe there is something to this notion of protecting your elders from bad news at all costs…