Awkwafina in The Farewell: Riding The Wave of Life and Loss

A few days ago, I kicked off my little quarantine movie club. I wanted to do it just for fun and selfishly, to motivate me to write more content about film. I wrote a list of films I considered “drifty”, or relating to travel or another culture. I immediately wrote down favorites like The Ramen Girl, Midsommar, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. As an afterthought, I added The Farewell. I hadn’t seen it and I’ve been meaning to. I decided that would be the first film.

I vowed that Thursdays would be viewing days, but this week, I didn’t make enough time for it. I waited until Friday to watch it. Unfortunately, Friday was also the day that Molly, our family dog, died of cancer. Cut to me curled up in my bed, sobbing through the film and wiping my tears away with the sleeves of my sweater.

In the film, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), the matriarch of a Chinese family, senses that she’s sick and goes to the doctor. The visit reveals that she has Stage Four lung cancer and has months to live. The catch? She never sees the real test results. Her family decides not to tell her that she’s dying. Her granddaughter, played by the ever so delightful Awkwafina, is plagued by the lie.

Awkwafina in The Farewell
Awkwafina in The Farewell
via The Atlantic

The idea of deceit, even for the sake of culture and family, made me uneasy. Since I watched the movie immediately after my own loss, I could see the real takeaway of the film. It wasn’t about lying. It was about the inevitability of loss.

Of course, you won’t always know when that is. My entire family knew that Molly was dying, but since she’s a dog, of course, Molly didn’t. There was no way to tell her that. Instead of focusing on grief, my parents spent the last few months caring for her. They alternated the use of a cone to keep her from scratching at her tumor. They cleaned up the mess when she did. They brought her on weekend trips to the family cabin, where she loved to ride on my dad’s pontoon boat. Molly didn’t know she was dying, but she knew that my family loved her.

That’s why The Farewell is such a wonderful portrayal of life. Over the course of the film, we see how each member of the family pays tribute to Nai Nai in their own way. The grief is palpable, thanks to the performances of the cast (notably, an intense scene with Han Chen, who plays Hao Hao.) Additionally, we see how the looming shadow of loss grows and shapes the characters.

At first, Billie (Awkwafina) insists that what they’re doing is cruel. She considers telling Nai Nai, who she’s very close to, what’s actually going on. We see her struggle mostly through emotional outbursts, going head-to-head with her father, mother, and uncle who all remind her that despite what she wants, this isn’t about her feelings. Not telling Nai Nai is the choice the family has made.

“In the East,” her Uncle Haibin says, “A person’s life is a part of a whole.”

She’s chastised for her emotions which, while understandable, pose a threat to the family secret. Eventually, it seems that Billie comes to understand that, too. She comes out on the other side as a little wiser, albeit, a little emotionally roughed up.

I thought the plot and dialogue were strong, but by far, my favorite aspect of The Farewell was the cinematography. Cool tones and tight shots bring you into each character’s sadness. During moments of laughter and bliss, bright, warm tones are used to show the family’s adoration for Nai Nai. The back and forth between the saturation of the scenes is a tug-of-war of emotion, with sweeping spells of grief and overwhelming, joyful moments.

The Farewell blogger review
The Farewell blogger review
via Slash Films

My brother was the one to tell me Molly had died. It seems like it wasn’t that long ago that Ricky, who is nearly ten years my junior, was collecting Pokemon cards. Now, he was on the other side of the phone, calmly telling me that Molly was gone, that Mom was okay but sad, and that he was sorry.

“I wanted to tell you first because I knew you loved her so much,” he said.

It was the first time Ricky had ever given me bad news and at the same time, the first time I recognized that he wasn’t my teenage little brother anymore.

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for calling me. Goodbye.”

After the call, I went on a long walk next to a creek near my house. The late afternoon sun left everything looking over-saturated, over-dramatized. The sun bounced off the water, the wind tickled my neck, and for a moment, I felt everything.

Melissa Randall is a nonfiction writer and essayist. Her stories on Medium often discuss travel, film, and personal life experiences.

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