Story

The Farewell is a comedy drama by Asian-American writer/director Lulu Wang. Living in New York, aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi (Awkwafina) maintains a close relationship with her Nai Nai (which means ‘paternal grandmother’ in Mandarin, played by Shuzhen Zhao), who lives in China. After receiving a rejection letter for a Guggenheim Fellowship, Billi learns from her parents that her beloved Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has only a few months to live. Billi is devastated by this news and becomes conflicted when she discovers the family is keeping the diagnosis secret from her Nai Nai.

A hastily arranged wedding for Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen) from Japan, has been planned in China as an excuse to get the family together with Nai Nai for one last time. Billi’s father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and her mother Jian (Diana Lin) fear that Billi will end up telling her grandmother about the diagnosis, so they tell her to stay behind in New York City.

Ignoring her parents’ orders, Billi flies to Changchun. Although she assures her parents that she won’t reveal the cancer diagnosis to Nai Nai, Billi shares her concerns with the rest of the family, including Nai Nai’s doctor. Billi’s uncle explains that the lie allows the family to bear the emotional burden of the diagnosis, rather than putting it on Nai Nai herself. Billi later learns that Nai Nai told a similar lie to her husband when he was terminally ill.

Funny moments during the wedding preparations lighten the underlying sadness of the family reunion. During the wedding reception, family members break down in tears on several occasions but manage to get through the banquet without raising Nai Nai’s suspicions. The family maintain the lie and say their tearful goodbyes to Nai Nai before returning to their homes in Japan and America.

This movie is predominantly in Mandarin with English subtitles throughout.

Themes

Serious illness; drug and alcohol use; grief

Violence

The Farewell has some violence. For example, Billi’s mother pushes Billi on the shoulder to make her hurry to set the table for dinner. The push is seen as loving.

Sexual references

The Farewell has some sexual references. For example:

  • When she hears about a couple who’ve been together only three months and have just got engaged, Billi jokingly says, ‘Do you think he knocked her up?’
  • Nai Nai jokes about what goes on ‘in the bedroom’ between the newly engaged couple.
  • Nai Nai tries to set up her granddaughter with her doctor, asking if he’s single.

Alcohol, drugs and other substances

The Farewell shows some use of substances. For example:

  • Adults frequently smoke. Two men smoke at a table at the wedding reception. Billi’s father smokes at the cemetery as an ‘offering’ to his father who also smoked. Billi’s father and uncle drink and smoke together.
  • Adults drink alcohol throughout.
  • There are references to Billi’s father having had a drinking problem in the past. Billi and her mother try to convince her father not to drink, but they’re unsuccessful. Billi’s father gets drunk, slurs his words and struggles to walk straight and upright.
  • A woman says that excessive drinking can lead to a fatty liver.
  • During the wedding reception a family plays a drinking game together.
  • A cloud of cigarette smoke is shown as characters walk through the streets of China.
  • People talk about having the right kind of alcohol at the wedding. At the wedding the groom drinks a lot of alcohol and gets visibly upset and overwhelmed.
  • Billi walks past a hotel room and sees men playing poker and smoking.

Nudity and sexual activity

The Farewell has some nudity and sexual activity. For example:

  • Billi removes her shirt and reveals her bare back, which is covered with bruises from her ‘cupping’ treatment.
  • A woman removed her intoxicated husband’s pants so that he can go to sleep. He’s shown lying down in a singlet and underwear.
  • Men play poker in a hotel room surrounded by women who appear to be prostitutes.

Product placement

The following products are displayed or used in The Farewell:

  • A tween boy rarely looks up from his iPhone.
  • The VW logo is seen on a car.

Coarse language

There’s some coarse language and insults in The Farewell.

Ideas to discuss with your children

The Farewell is a thought-provoking drama, based on a true story, which sheds light on the differences between Eastern and Western cultural values, particularly in relation to family.

The movie is predominantly in Mandarin with English subtitles, so younger viewers might find it difficult to keep up with the story. Although its rated PG, the sombre themes of serious illness and grief make this movie more appropriate for children aged over 12-13 years.

The main messages from this movie are about the importance of cultural tolerance, family, and cultural pride.

Values in this movie that you could reinforce with your children include compassion, empathy, family, self-control, trust and love. There’s also the value that Billi’s family puts on sharing emotional burdens and working towards the collective good.

This movie could also give you the chance to talk with your children about real-life issues like:

  • alcoholism and the negative effects of excessive drinking on your health
  • smoking and the negative effects on your health
  • lies and whether they’re justified when you tell them for the collective good. In The Farewell, the family sees the lie as ‘good’ because it protects Nai Nai from the emotional burden of a terminal illness diagnosis.