AAPI Heritage Month Retrospective: “The Farewell” is a Film Made for the Grieving Chinese American Daughter

Through pacifying pans and slow stills, “The Farewell,” directed by Lulu Wang, presents a quiet and profound contemplation on grief and growth, beautifully amalgamated with the exploration of Chinese American identity through the perspective of immigrant daughter Billi (Awkwafina). Following Nai Nai’s (Zhao Shu-zhen) cancer diagnosis that, according to tradition, must be kept from her, we witness Billi’s two worlds collide: a latently modernizing China and bustling America. Under the pretense of Billi’s cousin’s wedding, the diasporic family unites from all around to come together and see their humble matriarch one final time. For me, as a Chinese American, it left an impression in my mind that simultaneously haunts me and hearkens familiarly.

After 2018’s loud and proud theater hit, “The Crazy Rich Asians,” Chinese American film saw the release of “The Farewell” in 2019, whose more contemplative nature sets it apart from the previous year’s blockbuster. As we welcome May, in celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage, I want to revisit the intimate story that “The Farewell” proffers, which provides an altogether different kind of representation for Chinese Americans.

Though many focus on the immoralities of lying to patients, I want to redirect attention to the film’s story, one in which I see myself mirrored in. That is the core matter that truly spoke to my Chinese soul and American being, deserving of celebration. The film contains lengths of quietude that distill the generational disconnection of immigrant families. These moments hone in on the uneven cadences of Billi’s broken Chinese and Nai Nai’s exaggerated I love you’s in English—and the dissonance echoes, deepening and becoming reflective of this family’s physical disjunction.

Intentional and beautiful use of warm and cool tones also heighten the viewer’s senses. Tinged with a melancholy blue, a certain sadness saturates each scene, marking the ironic clash between marital celebration—the birth of new ties, springing with life—and a cancerous diagnosis—echoing imminent death. As the hours of the wedding of Billi’s cousin ticked by, shades of blue, scattered throughout the film set and baked into the lighting, sustain an impending doom even amidst golden yellow festivities.

Perhaps it is also the hushed ambience of this movie that best helps mark Billi’s sad but realistic maturity—acceptance being her expression of growth in this story. So many scenes sequester Billi; she sits alone when calling Nai Nai and confronting her parents about her grandmother’s terminal illness; we witness residences of silence in her New York City apartment and her temporary hotel stay in China. All of these shots cast her in a quiet solitude that visualizes a meek acquiescence to her grandmother’s eventual passing, to her estrangement from a childhood homeland, to the cultural shocks of swinging back and forth between China and America, and so much more…

“The Farewell” cleverly presents a very strange and bizarrely funny landscape. It is reflected in the odd and unethical, yet culturally accepted, premise of keeping a fatal diagnosis a secret from the patient. In their posturing and positioning, the actors reflect a comedic awkwardness, too. Not only does Billi exhibit teenager-esque poor posture, there are many other small moments scattered throughout the movie that help evoke a greater sense of gawkiness. When Billi’s cousin and his bride are getting their wedding photos taken, Nai Nai shoves the bride and groom’s heads together, pushing them into an ungainly embrace. They remain in this position, forcibly smiling for the camera, as Nai Nai sagely returns to her conversation with Billi.

The family fidgets awkwardly but sits still, awaiting Nai Nai’s death, and all this is darkly and comedically boiled down to a “farewell”; but it is more than that final hug and goodbye as Billi and her parents part ways with Nai Nai, and the taxi pulls out of her apartment complex. We learn that no matter how many lessons Nai Nai will impart upon Billi in their brief time together, the discontinuity between generations is set in stone. In watching Nai Nai disappear into the distance and around the corner, we—along with Billi—finally accept the irreparable effects of the diaspora.

In the wake of this story’s embrace, I also reconciled with my own bittersweet farewell. The night I watched “The Farewell,” the sky was clear, and I remarked aloud to my friend, “The stars are twinkling.” To which I received the response, “I don’t think so.” It was just that the stars were glowing from so far away. It was in this moment, below the vastness of the world, that I realized how far—in space and time—I was from my grandparents. Our love could exist, yet we could never truly understand each other and never would experience the world as one. And I cried.

It was my suddenly flaring fury and sadness, ignited by this film, which compels me to give it 5 out of 5 brilliant stars. For my aching Chinese American heart and mind, “The Farewell” has beautifully captured a departure I have had to accept for so long.

Editor’s Note: Ashley Song ’23 is an Illustration Editor for The Phillipian.