Family. Our place of origins and the place where love and hate, communion and division are played out in the drama of our lives. It is truly the people who are closest to us with whom we struggle the most, after all, they know us and we know them. And yet, it can also be the one thing that grounds us and keeps us focused on what is really important in life. People. And specifically the people we call family, yes, just like the Sister Sledge song, “We Are Family.”
The cleverly original script of the Chinese-American film, The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang emphasizes the role family has in our lives and that for good or for ill that is ultimately where we discover who we really are. This American comedy-drama premiered at Sundance in January 2019, picked up by A24 Studios and has had a successful theater release for an independent film. The story is based loosely on Wang’s own family experience, and specifically her grandmother’s illness. In the story, Billi (played brilliantly by Awkwafina) is a young Chinese-American writer living in New York with her parents trying to obtain a Guggenheim Fellowship and expand her career. She talks frequently on the phone to her grandmother in China, keeping up on their intimate relationship.
In the meantime, she learns from her parents that her Nai Nai (Mandarin for paternal grandmother) has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, but no one has told her. The family decided to all meet in Changchun, China for her cousin Hao Hao’s wedding, who lives in Japan, as an excuse to be with Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) for the last time. So the whole trip is based on a lie, as the film aptly expresses with the opening line.
Billi’s parents believe she cannot keep her emotions in check and so don’t want her to come to China with them in case she spills the diagnosis to Nai Nai. After her parents leave, Billi finds her way to China to the surprise of the entire family. Nai Nai is so delighted to see her granddaughter while everyone else looks mopey and sad. Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai delivers some of the best one-line zingers in the movie. She is a vibrant and lively woman who plans the entire wedding reception for her grandson, to everyone’s distress. Billi feels guilt-ridden about everyone lying to Nai Nai that she clashes with all the family members and even the doctor who treats Nai Nai for a “bad cough.” She is distressed about Nai Nai not knowing the truth about her condition.
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
One evening, her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) walks her back to the hotel where they are all staying and tells her that the Chinese way is about collectivism, basically opposite of the American value of individualism. The family believes that they are the ones responsible to carry the burden of Nai Nai’s illness instead of her, since Billi was arguing the rights of the individual, from a typically Western perspective, to know her situation and to take charge of her final days. She then finds out that her grandmother did that very same thing to her grandfather when he was dying several years earlier.
All the while, Billi feels lost and wayward in her life, especially since she lost the fellowship. Though trained in piano, she decided to become a writer. Her talent comes out when the family is sitting around and as a way to let out her emotions Billi expresses herself prodigiously on the keyboard.
At the extremely understated wedding ceremony for Hao Hao, the quirkiness of the situation reveals itself in some hilarious moments, such as when the reception becomes a talent show and the bride and groom sing an off-key rendition of a Japanese love song, since the bride is Japanese, as everyone ignores them. Then the family plays a drinking game and Hao Hao becomes hopelessly drunk. A somewhat understated humor lies at the heart of the film that deals with death in a delicate but realistic way.
When it’s time to leave to return to the states, Billi sulks as her grandmother hands her a red envelope, the Chinese tradition of giving money for special occasions. Her Nai Nai then tells her that she believes in her and to follow her dreams and she will do well in life. Her tender affection for Billi makes Billi not want to leave. Yet, as the car pulls away the grandmother cheerfully waves them along, but when they are out of sight she breaks down in tears. As challenging as family can sometimes be, it is still our place of belonging and our grounding for who we are. It never gets easy to say goodbye, but only becomes more poignant as the years go by.
For all its quirkiness, family remains our center, our life, our core of existence. When we know who we are we live happier and more peaceful lives. The challenge of immigrant families is they feel pulled in two different directions. Where do you belong? Where do you call home? Billi had a mix of Eastern and Western cultures, values, and traditions. She had to find the way to balance them within her and to find her sense of belonging especially in family.
The surprise ending during the credits gives hope and a smile. Family is what is really important in life. We are who we are when we find our place of belonging, the place that grounds us as human beings. Returning to family can be where we discover ourselves in a deeper and more profound way. Knowing ourselves and where we come from helps us understand who we are and where we need to go. As Christians, ultimately we find our sense of belonging in God and death leads us to being united to the One who created us and gave us life. Our lives are in God and death is our gain, as Saint Paul says, while Heaven is our true home.