Would you keep a life-threatening secret to keep the peace among the family? That’s the premise of the 2019 film The Farewell, which focuses on a Chinese family struggling to keep the terminal diagnosis of their matriarch secret, and the cultural differences the family faces amongst each other because of it. Taking it the hardest is Chinese-American granddaughter Billi, whose Western upbringing clashes with the traditional belief of the rest of her family.
Writer-director Lulu Wang partially based the film’s story in her own story with her terminally ill grandmother, as well as her own difficulties as a Chinese-American grappling with this practice. As Chinese Filipinos, we can also identify with the complexities presented in The Farewell, particularly on being brought up in a different culture and time compared to the country we were brought up in.
THE DIASPORIC LIFE
Graciously played by Awkwafina (known for her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians), Billi is an aspiring writer based in New York who immigrated from China as a child, but retains a close relationship with her Changchun-based Nai Nai (奶奶) and regularly calls her. Naturally, the news of her diagnosis hits hard, but the decision to keep it secret strikes harder. To top it all off, they’ve decided to marry off his Japan-based cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to his Japanese girlfriend as a cover so the family could gather again to say goodbye.
“Chinese people have a saying: When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them — it’s the fear,” Billi’s mother tells her. Whether or not to tell the secret is Billi’s struggle throughout the film, as well as the complicated nature of being part of two worlds.
I suppose that’s the struggle of someone whose ethnicity doesn’t entirely match the country they’re raised in. Chinese-Filipinos are people essentially raised in two cultures and identities, though it depends whether they’re brought up in “traditional” or “modern” households. Chinoys are Filipinos by heart – this is the country they’re raised in and known all their lives, and yet they struggle to be accepted by Chinese or Filipinos. There’s a lot of aspects of being a Chinoy to be proud of, at the same time, there’s some to be ashamed of. As we grow up, we as Chinoys develop our opinions more belief systems on what we agree with or not.
Aside from literally being based on Lulu Wang’s story with her grandmother, a similar story can be said about Awkwafina, who is mixed Chinese and Korean. Awkwafina was mostly raised by her Chinese relatives, and accepted the role as she felt the story spoke to her, even learning Mandarin for the role. With The Farewell mostly being spoken in Mandarin, she did a great job in speaking the language, and it adds to the character of Billi, whose language barrier sometimes hinders her desire to connect with the country she left all those years ago. In a rare dramatic turn for the New York-raised comedian, Awkwafina embodies Billi’s struggle in conversations with her family, the simple and subtle glances she makes, and the sadness of disconnect in a standout scene where Billi breaks down about her late grandfather later in the film.
It’s interesting to note the climaxes of both The Farewell and the 2018 rom-com Crazy Rich Asians are weddings. While Crazy Rich Asians’ wedding is a jubilant occasion backed by the grandiosity of Singapore, The Farewell is not as “big” but strives to be. Billi’s family isn’t the richest, but Nai Nai, blissfully unaware of her condition, takes charge and makes sure it’s the best one for both family and friends. It’s one where the couple has to fake how long they’ve been together (one year, in lieu of three months), and where a delicious serving of crab isn’t enough because lobster was supposed to be on the menu. The similarity of both weddings, however, is how they’re both for show, to show off to the people they know that it would be the best party yet.
The Farewell’s wedding might seem a bit more familiar. There are big servings of food, albeit displayed in a lot colder way compared to Crazy Rich Asians to mirror the film’s tone. The grandkids are forced to do karaoke. Billi greets people she doesn’t know. The drunk uncle ends up spouting a TMI story. Bored guests play childhood games to keep the good vibes going. Others are having the time of their lives.
Wherever you are in the world, major Chinese weddings might look similar to this. They’re no different here in the Philippines, where guests are invited from all over the country and come from all walks of life. There’s a Mandarin-speaking MC. There’s the older relative who is moved to give his all for karaoke. Sometimes the cute children of friends give numbers as well. The reception is either in Gloria Maris, Shangri-la, East Ocean, or Century Seafood (gone but not forgotten), with a variation of lapu-lapu, cold cuts, birthday noodles, and more. It almost always has to be big, memorable enough for the guests to leave a good impression on the family.
“In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole. Family. Society. It’s our duty to carry the emotional burden for her,” Billi’s uncle Haibin explains to her on why they should keep up the lie. A large part of the conflict among the family stems from their distance towards one another and the struggles they all endure in keeping Nai Nai’s cancer diagnosis a secret. They argue a lot about different things, from geopolitical concerns to cultural identities, often failing to find the peace and harmony that Nai Nai wants for her family. Yet, they all connect and agree on both their love for the matriarch and their sadness in faking her condition for her sake.
Being part of a larger, extended family is relatable for people of all walks of life, including Chinese-Filipinos. There’s a mix of fond memories of happier days, and a general unease whenever awkwardness or disagreements arise. Togetherness and unity are always emphasized, though it depends on the family if this is used for the better.
The heart of The Farewell is Nai Nai, played with grace by Zhao Shuzhen, who is such a source of warmth and hilarity throughout the film. Her wholesome talks with Billi are honest, and you definitely know they are close as relatives despite the distance and language barrier. She insists on overseeing the wedding of Hao Hao and acts as his stage mom in a way so the family doesn’t get embarrassed in the upcoming wedding and she still contributes in a big way to the wedding. She does tai chi in the streets to “drive out the toxins away,” something that’s called back later in the movie. She insists on walking upstairs even if she’s visibly getting sicker. Nai Nai keeps the peace when the family inevitably argues. She’s such a stubborn, lovable character that it becomes more heartbreaking when you’re reminded she doesn’t have much time left, and she’s completely oblivious to it.
The same can be said for Chinoys and their amas and lolas, who are often stubborn for better or worse. They know what’s best for the family, and often would want to relive the glory days by staying active and being active participants in the family. Many memories are spent with them, and the loving kind of amas would always want to spend as much time with their grandchildren as possible.
There’s a scene in the middle of the film where the entire family has a banquet-style dinner. It starts off fine, with the whole family catching up with each other. Things get a lot more personal when the concept of Chinese identity comes up. Billi’s father Haiyan says he is technically an American citizen, while Haibin says he, despite moving to Japan, will always be Chinese no matter what. A whole debate begins brewing, with some relatives saying it’s more prosperous to stay in China, while others question why said relatives will eventually send their child to study in the States. Will they return to China or stay in America when they grow up? At the same time, Billi’s mother Jian opines that there are more opportunities to receive in America. Billi argues that money can’t buy all happiness, but at the same time she believes there are many problems that America has. It’s a complicated and nuanced argument, where nobody is right or wrong.
Similar situations can be stemmed in Chinese-Filipinos, where some still see themselves as Chinese first, others identify more as Filipino, while many decide to embrace both at the same time. Some Chinoys identify as one or the other for several reasons, whether it be racism from Chinese or Filipinos, friend groups, acceptance, or preference. Most Chinoys have thankfully embraced the best-of-both-worlds aspect of being Chinese-Filipino, but while some have accepted their identity easily, other people might have struggled before finally being comfortable in who they are. Depending on your upbringing, growing up Filipino and living in the Philippines while developing Chinese habits and looking ethnically different from the average Filipino can result in an internal conflict, but over time, there’s always a path leading to personal acceptance in being part of two cultures, however long that may be.
The Farewell is a nuanced, heartbreaking, and relatable take on Chinese culture and identity, especially when faced with a literal life-or-death situation. There’s no good guys nor bad guys, just time and family. It’s a movie that shows Billi’s journey as one of empathy and perspective, one that mirrors many Chinoys’ journeys of understanding and self-acceptance in embracing the Chinese-Filipino identity.
The Farewell is available to watch via iTunes and Amazon Prime.