The Farewell (2019)
July 24, 2019 6:12 AM - Subscribe

A headstrong Chinese-American woman returns to China when her beloved grandmother is given a terminal diagnosis. Billi struggles with her family's decision to keep grandma in the dark about her own illness as they all stage an impromptu wedding to see grandma one last time. (Note: I guess "grandma" is IMDB's translation of Nai Nai, which is how the character is referred to throughout the movie.)

Awkwafina is a bit of a revelation in this funny, poignant meditation on family, loss, and cultural conflict as they play out in the life of a young woman who emigrated from China to the US as a child.

Director Lulu Wang based this story on her actual experience, which she first recounted on This American Life.

The movie gets a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious (33 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I was a bit hesitant to post this, given recent discussions about the overwhelming whiteness/ Americanness/ cultural cluelessness of this site, and I apologize in advance if I messed anything up in the post or descriptions. I loved this movie *so much*, though, that I wanted to try. Let's work hard not to fuck this up!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:17 AM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I really wish that they would release this movie anywhere near where I live.
posted by Quonab at 7:46 AM on July 24, 2019

I really really loved this movie. I called my grandma to say hello the day after I saw it. I thought Awkwafina was wonderful.

I saw it with my boyfriend, who is an Indian ex-pat and it opened up an interesting set of conversations about family and missing people and aging and things.

*spoiler, since I know lots of people haven't gotten to see this yet*

I really appreciated knowing that Lulu Wang's grandma is still going strong!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:18 AM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I really want to see this movie, but there's only 1 theater in all of North Carolina showing it (in Charlotte, which is a few hours away from me.) Grrrrrr. Feels kinda like #ChineseExclusionAct
posted by astapasta24 at 10:45 AM on July 24, 2019

This movie is super relevant to me, but I'll likely have to wait for the stream/bluray release.

Awkwafina's previous roles typically have her as a hyperkinetic manic dream pixie-ish-type, it was a little strange to see her seem pretty self conscious/ shy when she was on Late Night with Stephen Colbert promoting this movie.

Apparently she does not natively speak Chinese? How's her pronunciation in this movie?
posted by porpoise at 1:22 PM on July 24, 2019

I can't speak to her pronunciation, but her character's non-native Chinese is a plot point.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:42 PM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, Nai Nai is cantonese for "grandmother".
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 6:02 PM on July 24, 2019

Yes, let's please talk about her Mandarin! Personally I felt that the movie was but a mere distraction from the great mystery of why she was talking that way!?!!? Is she reading pinyin off of cue cards?!?!?! She spoke in a veeeery slow absolute monotone, placing no emphasis on any words. Her intonation was... I would say better than a first-year Mandarin student, and yet oddly wrong for some of the simplest words. Basically, I didn't think the way she spoke was realistic for a character who spent six years in China, then moved with her family who presumably still spoke some Chinese, plus regularly chatted with her grandma. Yes such a character would definitely struggle with more difficult sentences, but she should be able to say simple phrases (like "bye grandma") with correct intonation/pronunciation, and with a non-zero level of emotion/expressiveness. I've read that Awkwafina basically hired a tutor off the street, and if she was really starting for scratch or nearly it's certainly impressive. However, the lack of care on the director's part (at least that's my perception) really made me wonder who the movie was made for. It's like she was prioritizing the experience of A24 fanboys who wouldn't know any better, over actual Chinese people who would notice the stilted speech.

On the other hand, some people have told me that her speaking style does feel authentic for a Chinese immigrant, so maybe that's right. It's just nothing I've ever heard before and it really surprised me.
posted by acidic at 11:04 PM on July 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

However, the lack of care on the director's part (at least that's my perception) really made me wonder who the movie was made for. It's like she was prioritizing the experience of A24 fanboys who wouldn't know any better, over actual Chinese people who would notice the stilted speech.

As an actual Chinese person who was born in China and came to the US around Bili's age, I don't agree with that at all. I grew up in the Bay Area with a lot of Chinese-American classmates who had accents like that. Bili just spoke Mandarin with a heavy American accent.
posted by the wine-dark sea at 8:15 PM on July 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

To add to my above comment, Bili's accent is a HUGE point of the film. I'm sure that the director -- far from not caring about it -- was very deliberate in giving her that accent. This is the reality of many Chinese-Americans who were born in or grew up in the US. We don't have perfect Chinese, and it can oftentimes be a huge source of anxiety, embarrassment, and even pain. It's just another thing that marks you as "other," even back in the "homeland." The fact that Bili spoke that way just made the film even more real! All the accents in this film were perfect, from her parents' Chinese-accented English to all her relatives' Northern Chinese accents.

I just have to add that this film was incredible to me personally. Bili's early life trajectory is almost identical to my own. All the little observations that the film makes - some of the family dynamics, the awkwardness of being asked, "Which is better, China or America?" and knowing you can never convey the complexity of that question to the asker - felt like they were fished out of my own brain. I never thought I would get to see that conveyed on the big screen.

Also: "Nai Nai" specifically means "paternal grandmother." In Mandarin, "Po Po" is "maternal grandmother." Unsure what it would be in Cantonese.
posted by the wine-dark sea at 8:35 PM on July 25, 2019 [12 favorites]

Yeah, I'm completely aware that most Chinese-Americans have imperfect language-- mine is pretty lousy. I'm Chinese, grew up around other children of immigrants and when I ultimately studied it in college I took a class exclusively for very bad native speakers. My experience is that people are more comfortable saying a few things (words they often said as a child, etc) and then less comfortable with others-- it's a spectrum. I guess what felt so strange was that the quality of her speaking was so uniform across all words and in all contexts. From a language acquisition perspective, that seems really unusual so I wondered if it was intentional (and if so, why).
posted by acidic at 10:04 PM on July 25, 2019

The Farewell expands to more cities this weekend and then goes into wide release in the US a week from today, August 2nd, so it sounds like a lot more people will get a chance to see it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:19 AM on July 26, 2019

I really like this long article from the LA Times, which includes interviews with members of Lulu Wang's family, including her great-aunt Lu Hong, who plays herself in the movie. Warning: there's really only one thing that could be spoiled in this movie, and this article spoils it. For those of us who are already spoiled, it addresses some questions about the repercussions of making a movie about a family secret.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:46 AM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

Whew, I loved this movie. I'm not chinese, but I am east asian, and many things hit hard for me, while other ones were familiar & different.

"Which is better, China or America?" -- oh yeah, I grew up with this and remember answering back, "who do you like better, your mom or your dad?" to confound the asker.

However, I saw this film in an audience that had very few asians in it (it was mostly white and black), and had the weird and probably racist experience of people laughing at parts that were... not funny, just Chinese? It's as if the deadpan / camera edit humor gave people the sense that they could laugh at anything they found funny... so they started laughing at normal or sad moments, too, in a way that was basically haha-china-is-so-funny racist.

The sad thing is, I don't think they were trying to be racist; I don't think they knew what they were doing. It was just like it was just all funny to them.

It was difficult explaining this to a white friend I went to, who basically shrugged and said, "well, I think parts of it were supposed to be funny". Yes, that's true, but only the right parts. Sigh.
posted by many more sunsets at 11:58 AM on July 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I loved Billi's father and uncle. The uncle breaking down while giving his toast at the wedding was devastating, but I just loved both characters and their portrayal, even or especially in the small moments.

Overall, I thought this was very good but not great. Because all (or very nearly all) of the non-English is fully subtitled, I think they missed an opportunity to show how Billi likely wouldn't have been able to understand every conversation so clearly, and we didn't share that disorientation. There was some great cinematography, and some of it fell flat.
posted by jimw at 5:37 PM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

they missed an opportunity to show how Billi likely wouldn't have been able to understand every conversation so clearly

I don't know, usually people are way better at listening than they are speaking, and in my experience I'd expect Billi to understand every conversation (especially if she grew up speaking to her parents and her grandmother in Mandarin.) It's certainly the case for me. The film does share moments when she asks her parents about certain things. (e.g. "What does X mean", etc).

The only time something isn't subtitled is when Hao Hao and Aiko are speaking in Japanese, which makes sense, since the film is primarily from Billi's point of view.

A few other choice moments that I really enjoyed:

When Billi and her mom are talking / arguing with each other after finding the earring. They're arguing in English, and their Hao Hao and Aiko and Aiko's friend (who were speaking in Japanese) all stop to bear witness / be part of an emotional moment even though they might not understand what Billi and her mom are saying. The moment of being part of an emotional moment beyond language boundaries is something I've experienced but never seen depicted.

Billi's mom talking about having to show emotions at funerals.. I swear, I heard that verbatim from my own mother.

Also. Nai Nai knew.

Near the end, when Billi tells Nai Nai that she didn't get the fellowship, and that she didn't tell Nai Nai because she didn't want her to worry -- to me, that was when they realized that each other knew. Under their words, through other words, they were saying farewell to each other.
posted by many more sunsets at 6:36 PM on July 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

We want to go see this with our teen this weekend but said teen has a very specific squick about deception in movies and I'm wondering if someone who has seen it can answer this:

Is there a scene where there is an obvious hole in the lie and grandma notices and the family has to make up another lie on the spot to cover things up? For example something like grandma saying, "If there's a wedding then why are we doing xyz?" and then the family saying, "Uh... because... implausible thing!"

This scenario sends kiddo into an anxiety and stress spiral, so thanks for letting me know in advance!
posted by latkes at 1:05 PM on July 27, 2019

Hmmm. It's not like the family is collectively plotting to "trick" the grandma into something. So there isn't a cat-and-mouse game where the grandma is actively suspicious. But, the family not telling the grandma is a core part of the story. As a result, there are a few scenes where the family deliberately lies to an unsuspecting-ish grandma.

I think it's an interesting and good meditation on family and honesty that is a healthy and thoughtful counterpoint to an American mindset of "being close with someone is telling them the truth about everything", so perhaps going to see it with that framing might be productive.
posted by many more sunsets at 2:25 PM on July 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

A few more articles with discussion about the role of food in the movie and Chinese culture
posted by Gorgik at 4:42 PM on July 27, 2019

Oh man, this was lovely. I had already liked Awkwafina, but I had never realized what an extraordinary face she has. Emotion just ripples across it. You could absolutely believe that her family would think she was too emotional to keep the secret even if she tried. When she took the mic at the wedding, I kept thinking don't do it, don't do it, because as an American moviegoer I am trained to expect a dramatic act of defiance in such a situation. But Wang is a better writer than that.

I had to cover my face to keep from crying while Nai Nai waved and waved until the car was out of sight. My Mimi always did that. She got sick so suddenly that I never got to say goodbye.

The movie made me hungry, too. Sometimes they'd be serving something and I'd think, I don't know what that is but I want some.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:30 PM on July 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Also. Nai Nai knew.
I was sure that Nai Nai knew (or suspected) and was playing along to spare the rest of the family, but I'm not sure that it makes sense that she would have tried to get the test results if she knew.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:33 AM on July 28, 2019

OK saw it (without my teen) and loved it.

The most understated and quiet comedy I can recall. It reminded me a bit in tone of Ladybird. And a little bit of Barry Jenkins (but maybe I'm just saying this because I found out Lulu Wang and Barry Jenkins are dating!!) Maybe there's a bit of a minor movement among Millennial directors for quiet, humanistic, personal stories that center women and people of color? I hope so!

As a second generation immigrant story, I was struck by how different it was than the usual tropes - where an american born kid is struggling with how much they want to get away from their parents values. This story, of a longing to connect with the protagonist's parents or grandparents, has rarely been told in American movies.

Just delightful.
posted by latkes at 7:46 PM on July 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

Just saw this last night and it's such a lovely, lovely film. I left feeling so satisfied -- like I'd just eaten a huge homemade meal filled with love.

My family is small and spread out across the world, I see my parents, who live on another continent, only a couple of times a year that are carefully planned vacations, so the whole huge family gathering just in general made me teary, not just the true purpose of the visit. Partially because I know that our next large family gathering will likely be due to the passing of a grandparent, most likely my grandmother, who I was always the closest to and haven't seen in years after she moved to be closer to my aunt, who has more time and resources to properly care for her in her old age (late 90's with severe dementia).

I've said this before about Awkwafina, but she's really a treasure. The Alamo Drafthouse's pre-show included this youtube video about Awkwafina and her grandmother, as well as a short interview with Lulu Wang where Wang admitted she'd had doubts about Awkwafina wanting to play the role of Billi because at that time Awkwafina was only known for her rap videos, but was surprised that the story was just as personal to Awkwafina -- American-Chinese growing up being closer to her Chinese grandmother -- as it was to Wang.

The entire cast was fabulous, though. The whole family felt so real to me. Special shout-out to Hao Hao and Aoki -- I'd love to see the rom-com version from their perspective. "Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but my grandma's dying, so let's get married." Also they had so few lines (for obvious reasons -- she's Japanese, he probably speaks worse Mandarin than Billi), but they had such importance in the background (figuratively, as the impetus to get people to visit Nai Nai, and literally in so many scenes -- particularly the wedding photo scene, which was DELIGHTFUL even as Billi and Nai Nai were having a serious discussion throughout it all). But this was Billi's film -- she wasn't there for the wedding, so the focus wasn't on them.

Overall the film was beautifully shot. Wang's directing is just my style. So many little moments that could seem either boringly mundane or slightly surreal, yet I think it's what contributed to that "satisfied" feeling I left the theater with. The brief glimpse of her grandfather smoking by the window was probably the moment that made me tear up the most, as if to say -- "You may not have been able to say goodbye before I died, but I'm still always with you."

I want to see it again, to catch even more of the smaller moments I missed because I don't speak Mandarin and thus relied on the subtitles, but I think I'll need to wait a bit (probably wait until it's available on streaming/itunes) just because I'm still so "full" from last night's viewing.
posted by paisley sheep at 1:57 PM on July 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

I finally saw this movie last night, and man it manages to capture so much of what growing up ABC is. That little scene where Nai Nai was coaching Billi to greet all the aunties and uncles loudly is the epitome of my childhood right before we would head over to a family friend's house for some gathering.

Squeee! Count me in as a very happy moviegoer
posted by astapasta24 at 5:52 PM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I haven't seen this movie, but the This American Life episode about the story is reairing with an update... which apparently has already been mentioned here as to the family situation. Eh, I'll still mention it anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:42 AM on August 5, 2019

I knew the movie was probably going to be good, but the moment I knew it was going to be fantastic was about 0.5 seconds in when Akwafina’s character said her first word of Mandarin. It was spot the fuck on for “first language was Chinese, but primary language has been American English for decades”. The only part I didn’t buy was when she forgot the Mandarin for “congratulations” when she knew so many other word pairs — you’re gonna hear it 7,000,000 times at a wedding, let alone at every Lunar New Year.

Plus, that OH FUCK moment of opening up something in Chinese and realizing you can’t read it was real as fuck. And the parts about her nai nai commenting on her round butt and feeding her with chopsticks! 👍👍👍
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:45 PM on August 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

A few more thoughts, now that I'm not on my phone:

- I loved the inversion of the usual trope in stories about immigration, about how America is big and expansive and teaches you how to stand up as an individual. Here, it's family and traditional Chinese old-people martial arts that does it.

- I loved the ways the movie touched on class in China -- the mention of how her grandmother has cycled through many maids, and how you never hear the current maid speak until anything of significance until she tells Billi, in an accent that marks her as being "provincial" and "rural", that she never went to school and can't read written Chinese, at least not the kind in medical documents. The rich businessmen who come to the hotel to party. The woman doing sex work who Billi sees through a window (and sees Billi in return). The hotel clerk excited and eager to talk to someone from America, and how that emphasizes that he comes from a lower, less educated social class than the handsome doctor who studied in the UK and has fluent English and is so confident and calm in dealing with Billi. The moment when you find out that her grandparents were in the army, and that three of her old suitors ended up as generals, not only because it's HOLY FUCK NAINAI WAS A BADASS, but it explains the question I'd had as soon as we met the brother's family, which was how the family was connected enough to have both sons emigrate long enough ago to raise children overseas.

It was well-done, and I particularly appreciated it because the story is focused on Billi's POV, and those are exactly the kinds of things that would jump out to a Chinese diaspora person coming back to the homeland (aka ME THESE ARE THE MAINLAND VERSION OF THE THINGS THAT JUMPED OUT AT ME WHEN WE WENT ""HOME"" TO HONG KONG).

- The movie captures really well so many traditional family dynamics -- how Hao Hao may be the first-born grandson of the first-born son, but Billi is the better-loved grandchild because her grandparents helped raise her. How even though Hao Hao is less favored, he still grieves for his grandmother, and how his grandmother is (properly, under traditional norms) scornful of the woman he ""marries"", because she is not good enough for Hao Hao. How you know that her own daughters-in-law went through the same dynamic until they proved themselves. How the grandmother promises to throw Billi an EVEN BIGGER wedding. How the movie is never 100% clear whether crab or lobster was ever ordered for the feast. How the grandmother recognizes herself in Billi. How the grandmother gives Billi money, and tells her to spend it on something fun, because she knows and cares that Billi is in tough straits and wants to take care of her, but doesn't want to shame her for it, and also wants Billi just to have something frivolous.

But maybe the most intensely FUCK THIS IS WRITTEN BY CHINESE DIASPORA ABOUT THEIR RELATIVES was the exchange between Billi's mother and the daughter of Nai Nai's sister -- where the daughter resents that she and her mother have given up so much to take care of Nai Nai, when by Chinese tradition, it should've been one of the wives of the sons who did it.

Every element of it felt real. Like, the fact that it took place around a dinner table. The fact that it was women. The fact that it was these particular women. The fact that it was a proxy war conducted through pride in China's economic rise. And the story that Billi's mom is so fucking perfect in every way. A church! Like the kind the that the Party says is bad! The lady was so kind! So trusting! And then the brother's comment that he will always consider himself to be Chinese, and how that touches on the general reputation that Japan has for not welcoming immigration in general, and being particularly hard on immigrants from other Asian countries.

The only difference between that and convos I've heard at my own nana's table were that a comment on the race of the pastor. Like, in my family, the race of the pastor would've been up-front-and-center.

- This was a hell of a movie, and I loved it very, very much.
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:57 AM on August 12, 2019 [14 favorites]

But why was everyone so casually dressed at the wedding? Billi was wearing a sweatshirt, and it looked like other people were wearing jeans and even cutoffs. Wouldn't they be more dressed up at a wedding?
posted by ottereroticist at 12:21 PM on August 16, 2019

Wouldn't they be more dressed up at a wedding?

In Mainland China, guests often dress casually at weddings.
posted by bearette at 2:11 PM on August 16, 2019

This movie was perfect in every way: the casting, the pacing, the blend of humor and poignancy. Instant favorite.

I loved all the scenes with Hao Hao and his bride. I assumed that the wedding itself was a sham! I thought I picked up on some kinda homophobic queer coding -- a line from the grandma about Hao Hao being super sensitive that came across as weirdly snide in context (and the theater I was in erupted in laughter at that point). In any case, it seemed like the casting director deliberately found people with the opposite of chemistry to play that couple, and it was so delightfully uncomfortable to watch.

The audience I watched it with also laughed at some parts I didn't think were funny and it made me a little uncomfortable. The friend I went with thought that maybe it's because humor and sadness are blended so well in this movie that people draw the threshold in different places.
posted by eirias at 8:52 PM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I finally was able to see this and was blown away by Zhao Shuzhen‘s performance as Nai Nai. She was just so wonderful. I loved the film as well, it reminded me a little of Moonstruck—how the feeling of family just came through the screen.
posted by sallybrown at 6:11 PM on December 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

We just caught this on the iTunes 99¢ rental. Lovely. Same feelings like Moonstruck.

I used the oppty to watch it multiple times in our 48 hour rental period ... very home/not home again feeling. My town of growing up is super changed, and the family left behind is distressingly different and the same.
posted by tilde at 4:38 PM on February 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I saw this last night. A lot of the comments above are very illuminating to my limited American eyeballs.

I liked it. The characters felt complex and very human; Billi's mom in particular was interesting. She wasn't horrible, but she wasn't particularly warm. It was interesting to see how Billi knew to route around her, in a way that felt like more than just normal mother/daughter angst? I'm glad the story did not feel obliged to fix everything.

Billi's aunt (the one who took them to the spa) was a fun low-key heel. Like obviously there was some resentment there. Her arranging for Billi to have the cupping done at the spa reminded me of my stepmother's minor sadisms, like, "Here is something supposedly good for you, but I will enjoy that it causes you pain!" The aunt seems to have got it out of her system by the time of the wedding, which was a nice dramatic relief. I guess she eases up in the grave offerings scene when she gets to tell Billi and her dad to peel the oranges, open the cookies, scatter the petals, etc.

The movie maybe stuck a toe over onto the light flimsy family drama side a time or two. But then there's stuff like little Nai Nai being like, "Oh, you don't know about my suffering at all?? Don't worry about me, I'm fine!" Like, damn. Or there's the shots of the entertainers at the wedding: the creepy greeters, the drum-and-cymbal people who pack up and fuck off in like 1.5 seconds after finishing the number, the lion dancer guy smoking a cigarette. It doesn't feel sanitized.
posted by fleacircus at 9:56 AM on February 12, 2020

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