Say what you will about how the film ended if you’ve seen it, this one hits home for me, almost a little too close given that I watched it twice – once in theaters with friends, and once at home after my own grandma unexpectedly passed away in Taiwan. Given that this was a very personal film for writer-director and fellow Asian American immigrant Lulu Wang, a lot of the cultural nuances that ONLY a person who has walked in these shoes will know, played out exactly as it would in real life. But to the naked and untrained outsider eye, they are too subtle to pick up. Everyone’s new favorite best friend, Queens native Awkwafina, gets ahead of Hollywood before they pigeonhole her into the comedic sidekick for life, and delivers so movingly in this dramatic turn. Having grown up in the same neighborhood and circles of influence as her (and even really only being a few degrees of separation away from the life she lives), I have never felt so known and spoken for on the big screen as watching Billie go through her own journey. As the trailer suggests to the bewildered western audience – yes, there is such a thing in Chinese culture that withholds the truth about one’s dying state. It is from this thread of lie that the entire film rests its whimsy and drama on.
Through Awkwafina’s broken and thick-accented Asian-American Mandarin, the all-too-familiar feeling of missing them for those of us who have families on the other side of the world, unravels slowly. The longer one stays in the motherland, the more one realizes the weight of what is missing in his or her life. To go back to your normal routines in America or wherever it may be, means that you once again fade into the the abyss. What Billie fights for in this film is the ability to get to be around and say goodbye to her Nai Nai, a privilege a lot of people give up when they leave, and what the film attempts to teach us, is that this seemingly normal perspective, in fact paints the fundamental difference between Western cultural thinking, and Eastern cultural thinking.
What hit home the most for me, is a scene when Billie’s family leaves Nai Nai’s apartment to hop on a taxi to the airport for their return to New York. As any loving grandparent would, Nai Nai insists even at her old age to walk out to the car to see the family off, while everyone tells her to stay put. The family climbs in the car, and Nai Nai holds on to every last second she could of watching her people go, by simply putting them in the car and saying good byes. The taxi finally pulls away and the camera lingers on a sweet white-haired old lady, walking into the middle of the street waving at the car growing smaller and smaller in the distance. The camera cuts to the family sitting inside the taxi driving away, everyone staring out of the corner of their own spaces, tearing – and this is where I let the floodgates go. For me, it is this familiar feeling that draws the gut punch, because I could repaint so clearly in that moment, the same scene set in my own memory, of my grandparents walking out to the street, waving good bye at the taxi my family just hopped on, wondering if this is the last they will ever get to see of us.
Now I had these feelings and thoughts the first time I watched The Farewell. In the 3 months between my 2 viewings, my own grandmother unexpectedly passed away in Taiwan. I had already been making plans to fly back to see my grandparents next year, and my mom had already booked flights to spend Christmas and New Years with her parents. As I’m writing this now I’m tearing again – because what I think has been the most important thing to come out of this film, is that it’s urged the audience to hold onto those you love in life dearly – call your grandma. Unfortunately even after my first viewing, I never got the chance to see my grandma again until the day of her funeral. No the movie is not without flaws, but this is too important to an entire community of people to be passed on lightly, and for that I am grateful to know that even in my own lost opportunity, The Farewell tells a story that brings me just a little bit of solace and healing for missing my own people on the other side of the world.