I feel privileged I was able to watch The Farewell during November (the month where the liturgy encourages us to reflect on the Last Things, as well as a strong family time with Thanksgiving), and especially this week, when my community is grieving the death of one of our elderly sisters, as well as two close brothers from the Society of Saint Paul. The Farewell is a well-crafted, understated and moving tribute to family, the elderly, grief, and the importance of respect for cultural differences.
The Farewell’s story revolves around Billi, a young Chinese American woman who discovers that her grandmother has advanced cancer. The twist? That her family back in China have decided not to tell her, and instead stage a family wedding as an excuse for family members to come and visit the grandmother one last time.
The Farewell contains both laugh-out-loud and cry-out-loud moments in this dramedy. I admire the filmmakers and actors, especially director Lulu Wang (upon whose family this story is based) and actress Awkwafina, for being unafraid to sit with the characters as they grieve the upcoming loss of Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother). In the midst of sorrow, the film also showcases the true-to-life comedy of family members trying to help each other keep the family secret.
The choice of music adds significantly to the pathos of the film, even during the credits. “Come Healing,” by Leonard Cohen, sung during the credits, felt like a prayer and provides much to meditate on as the film ends.
The outstanding authenticity of this film—“based on an actual lie” is the tagline—was fought for by writer/director Lulu Wang, who brilliantly and subtly communicates the beauties and challenges of the immigrant Chinese-American experience. The acting and directing are both superb, and the script is exquisite in its realistic dialogue that also gives us a few peak moments of wisdom—much like conversation in everyday life. One favorite line is a little saying from Nai Nai, “Life is not just about what you do, it’s more about how you do it.” And the cultural wisdom offered by the Chinese elders who talk about how family should bear burdens that might overwhelm a vulnerable individual is a beautiful insight into what family is all about.
The film’s worldview is intercultural, with moments of the family comparing life in the USA and China, but lacking any direct reference to the beliefs and practice of Christianity. Yet, this flawed and loving family make beautifully evident the grace of God at work in the genuinely human experiences of their lives.
The Farewell lacks the sensationalized entertainment values of many films today, but is the richer for it. This is a movie to watch for those who wish to be deeply moved and enter into an intense human experience of family. Subtitles and the sometimes intensely sorrowful moments in the film make The Farewell more appropriate for thoughtful viewers able to discern the nuances of family, loss, and family secrets. Although rated PG, this may not be the best choice for pre- and young teens, but would be a great film for older family members and movie groups to watch and discuss together. And…make sure you watch to the end!
Themes: Family, grief, terminal illness, secrets, intercultural differences.
For another thoughtful review (with spoilers), check out Sr. Nancy Usselmann’s take on The Farewell.