This week I saw a quiet movie: Lulu Wang's The Farewell. Billi (Awkwafina, in a dramatic turn that plays like penance for her caricature in Crazy Rich Asians) is a Chinese-American twentysomething whose beloved grandmother gets cancer, but the family decides not to tell her. Billi and her family fly from America and Japan respectively to spend time with Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) in China under the guise of a quickie wedding. She gets time to spend with Nai Nai around the festivities, getting life advice, playful ribbing and a bit of tai chi training. (Their relationship is seriously adorable, from their affectionate opening phone conversation - riddled with little white lies - to the final parting shot.) With her unchecked emotions and broken Mandarin and not-money-centered ambitions, Billi and her American sensibilities have a hard time accepting that the Chinese contingent of the family is doing the right thing in not telling Nai Nai about her condition. They make some pretty solid points:
What if it's the fear of dying that kills Nai Nai, rather than the cancer itself?
Is it not just easing their own guilt in passing the emotional burden of knowledge on to her?
Is it not their duty as her family unit to bear it?
Twice in the course of the story, Billi finds a little bird in her room - in her apartment in New York and then again in her hotel in China. Both times the bird escapes while she's looking the other way. In the last moments of the film, Billi is home on the streets of New York when she echoes the "HA!" of Nai Nai's tai chi instruction, startling a whole tree of birds out of their perch back in China.
While I wouldn't call the symbolism subtle in any way, I am struggling with its meaning. If we were dealing with a conventional young female protagonist, the birds would represent Billi's innocence, which might be linked to her sexual maturity in some way. But in spite of several instances of being asked if she's married or in a relationship, we actually don't know anything about Billi's love life. It's a non-factor in The Farewell. What a refreshing change from literally every other coming-of-age film centered on a young woman. So what then changes in Billi?
S P O I L E R S :
After questioning her father, her mother, her aunt, her cousin, the doctor, and basically every one else she can, Billi ultimately makes the choice to help shield Nai Nai from her diagnosis. Upon realizing that Nai Nai's aide has gone to pick up test results, Billi runs at full speed to the hospital to stop the report from getting back to her grandmother. She even helps the aide change the report to read as benign.
(If that wasn't answer enough regarding the film's opinion on the ethics of the situation, a postscript shows the director's real life grandmother doing tai chi with the caption: Six years after her diagnosis, Nai Nai is still with us. To me, that answers the question of "Should the family tell Nai Nai about her cancer?" with a resounding HELL NO LOOK SHE'S STILL ALIVE BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT IT where I thought some ambiguity would have had a more powerful sendoff.)
Between Billi's decision to join her family in their subterfuge and coming to understand her parents' understated (anticipatory) grieving, as well as using the tai chi she learned to do something other than humor Nai Nai, a lot of the film is concerned with Billi accepting her Chinese heritage and culture. I appreciate that she returns to New York - there was a point where she wanted to stay in China - because it's the only sign that who she became in America is still valued and should be integrated with what she's learned.
But I don't think the birds represent acceptance of her culture. She's losing one bird at a time, then all of them, suddenly, in her eureka moment at the end. Is it acceptance of herself? I think it might be the release of her guilt. She's dealing with the disappointment of losing out on a fellowship, disappointment in her parents for what she perceives as failing Nai Nai, disappointment in herself, until she allows herself to release all of the guilt and accept the decisions they all made with agency.
Of course The Farewell reminds me of my grandmother, the one who passed away a few weeks before my wedding. Maybe that's why I was bitter about the ending, the little postscript about how the real Nai Nai is still alive. We flew out to Israel to see my Savta in the hospital when we heard she wasn't doing well. For five days, she was too weak to open her eyes or do more than squeeze your hand. On Friday night, Shabbos, we ran for forty-five minutes for a scare that was resolved by the time we got there. The next night, our last one in the country, we went to see her again in the hospital and there she was, sitting up, eyes open, trying to speak past the rattling in her chest. She met my fiance for real. I held her hand as much as I could, because we were leaving the next day. And two days later she had passed.
The scene at the end of The Farewell when Nai Nai has her hand on the cab as it pulls away, trying to hold on as long as possible, and then seeing her through the back window of the cab, was unspeakably sad to me. It's hard to know how much you can do in any given situation, but it was nice at least to see a film where the options are all within the characters' power. It's just up to them to make the decision.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.