BC Alumna’s ‘The Farewell’ Examines Cultural Divide

From its cast to its storyline, The Farewell aims to bridge the gap between East and West. The dialogue is split between English and Chinese; the story begins in bustling New York City before jumping to eastern China; and its director, Lulu Wang, BC ’05, hails from China but emigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 6. 

Like Billi (Awkwafina), the movie’s protagonist, Wang struggled to control her grief when her family disclosed to her that her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), who she calls Nai Nai, was diagnosed with lung cancer. As soon as she hears the news, Billi is ready to rush to China to spend time with Nai Nai before time runs out. But there’s just one catch: Nai Nai doesn’t know that she has cancer.

The premise is so preposterous you’d be quick to dismiss it if the movie wasn’t prefaced with the wry statement, “based on an actual lie.” Wang’s own grandmother never knew that she had cancer. Her family deliberately concealed it from her, believing it to be a merciful alternative to being hyper-aware of her own mortality. Diagnosed in 2013, Wang’s grandmother is still alive today, and still entirely ignorant of her condition, a situation that the movie’s release has since complicated.

“We did, in fact, lie to her about what the movie’s about […] I told her that, you know, it was just this sort of immigration story about this family who left and are coming back for a reunion because of a wedding, which, you know, is only a lie by omission,” said Wang in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air on Wednesday.

As the director was living the lie in real time, Wang had the sense that the strange experience had a silver screen quality to it.

“Even as I’m going through all of this shock and the sorrow, the grief and confusion,” Wang told Rolling Stone in an interview earlier this year, “I had the feeling that: This is a movie. The whole atmosphere of the trip, the wild way we were keeping this story up … I wasn’t sure how I was going to turn it into a film. But I could just tell there was something really rich there.”

Although The Farewell came ready-made—its contents stored in Wang’s visceral memory—the director had already established her film career by the time her grandmother fell ill in 2013. To date, Wang has directed three other films: Can-Can (2007), Posthumous (2014), and Touch (2015).

Wang, who grew up in Miami and studied classical piano as a child, graduated from BC in 2005 with a double major in literature and music. Although she didn’t receive a degree in film, Wang’s experience taking film classes at BC paved the way for her eventual pivot toward directing.

“I didn’t go to film school when I was [in Boston], but I studied film and I think that it really makes me think back on my journey of having the confidence to pursue film even though I didn’t go to film school,” she says. “It was mostly men in my class back then. And so not knowing where I would fit in in the industry … it’s been just really good to reflect on all of that,” Wang said in an interview with the Boston Globe.

Still anticipating its August 2 national release, The Farewell became a huge success for the BC alumna when it stunned at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film was consequently bought by A24 for a reported $7 million, and finds itself in the company of the indie film powerhouse’s other recent female-directed blockbusters, including Lady Bird and Booksmart.

In the film, Billi’s family convenes in Nai Nai’s hometown of Changchun under the guise of attending her cousin’s wedding. But really, they’ve made the trip to spend time with Nai Nai, who is confused by Billi’s somber attitude but delighted to be micromanaging the details of the wedding. As Billi reunites with her far-flung family members, the distance between her world and theirs becomes more apparent. While Billi strides confidently through New York, in China, she is quiet, remaining on the sidelines.

Billi is played by Awkwafina, known for her goofy Youtube rap parodies and recent appearances in lighthearted romps like Ocean’s Thirteen and Crazy Rich Asians. In The Farewell, she skillfully demonstrates her ability to convey the grief, anger, and confusion Billi feels when having to perform an elaborate lie instead of being honest with Nai Nai. 

It’s almost exhausting to watch her slouching across the screen, spontaneously bursting into tears, and gazing vacantly into space. The weight of the lie is so heavy, the doom so oppressive, that the rare comedic moment is desperately needed to give the audience a break. Nai Nai, too, livens up any scene she’s in, despite being the unwitting victim of the story. 

The film, somewhat heavy-handedly, attempts to illustrate the differences between western individualism and eastern collectivism with westernized Billi’s aversion to hiding the truth from Nai Nai. Her Chinese family members berate her for failing to hide her emotions and insist that it is selfish for her to refuse to shoulder the burden of the lie. For them, the guilt that they endure is just another sacrifice to make for Nai Nai’s sake. 

More nuanced is the film’s examination of the various facets of Chinese identity. In a tense scene, Billi’s family members bicker over who is the most devoted to Nai Nai, and, by extension, China itself. Billi’s parents are criticized for leaving China and Nai Nai for the U.S., but Billi’s mother bites back, pointing out her relative’s hypocrisy for planning to send her son to the U.S. for college, even if he might decide to stay there. Even Billi’s cousin has lost his connection to China. Raised in Japan, he speaks less Chinese than Billi does.

The most genuine scene lacks any sort of political undertones, though. It’s just Nai Nai trying to teach Tai Chi to Billi with the utmost seriousness, while Billi awkwardly moves her lanky limbs around and echoes Nai Nai’s fierce grunts with hoarse ones of her own. Nai Nai quickly gives up and the two fall into laughter. “Stupid child!” Nai Nai exclaims without any real malice. 

For a moment, Billi looks truly joyful, as if she’s forgotten how little time Nai Nai has left. For a moment, the gap between East and West doesn’t exist.

Featured Image by A24