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Carrying The Burden Of A Big Secret: The Farewell

Updated on September 1, 2019


Billi and her parents have not seen Billi's grandmother since the family moved from China to New York about 25 years ago. Nevertheless, Billi and her grandmother have stayed in touch over the years. A health issue, though, takes them back to the land of their birth in The Farewell. Billi (Awkwafina), an aspiring performer, makes the journey over the objection of her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). They worry that Billi will reveal that her beloved Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal cancer, a diagnosis kept from her due to Chinese tradition. Billi travels separately from her parents, but keeps the secret. She finds it hard to hide her sorrow because she finds the tradition to be dishonest. Nai Nai assures Billi that she is fine, and has even had her sister living with her to help in her care.

The family and their other Chinese relatives have come for another reason. Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Chan Han) brings his Japanese fiancee Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) to marry her there. Nai Nai, dealing with a condition she believes is benign, takes the lead in planning the wedding reception. Even as she makes arrangements, she has to go back to the hospital for a change in her medication. Explanations from her parents and her Uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) help to make Billi understand why the family keeps the prognosis from Nai Nai.


At the beginning of The Farewell (whose Chinese title translates into English as either Don't Tell Her or Don't Let Her Know, according to Wikipedia), writer-director Lulu Wang tells viewers that her movie is based on an actual lie. It seems important to Nai Nai's descendants in this time of gathering and celebration to focus on living and enjoying this potential final time with their loved one. The movie also takes a look behind the tradition of keeping the severity of Nai Nai's illness from her. The family feels responsible for dealing with the emotional weight of the situation. Nai Nai's sister, little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), for example, lives away from her husband in order to care for her sibling. Wang shows fine balance between the joyous occasion and the reality they may not reunite like this again. She uses Nai Nai's upbeat attitude and her previous experience with illness to make sense of the way her family handles the days that remain for their elder.

Awkwafina, whose acting career gained traction in 2018 with the films Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, delivers a winning lead performance as the sad but respectful Billi. Even though she and Nai Nai have lived half a world apart for so many years, Billi confides more in her grandmother than she does in any other family member. Nai Nai knows before Billi's parents that Billi did not get the grant she sought. As regards her grandmother's health, she uses Nai Nai's lack of knowing English to get straight answers from her doctor. Shuzhen gives a touching performance as Nai Nai, who loves the opportunity to bring her immediate family together. She doesn't worry as much about the health issues she has as she worries about the well-being of her family. In her moments with Billi, she shows she knows more than Billi expects her to know. I also liked the performances of Ma and Yongbo as brothers who show the sadness of their mother's diagnosis differently. While Haiyan remains stoic, Haibin becomes openly emotional in a private moment with Billi.


The Farewell takes a good and poignant look at a family that takes upon themselves the weight of a loved one's imminent passing. In China, families can do this because their healthcare laws don't require doctors to be as forthcoming as they must do in America. Billi's family doesn't want Nai Nai to die with dignity as much as they want her to live with dignity until she dies. They also want the long separation to end with more than just an ordinary reunion; they want it to be a momentous occasion. Billi and her parents understand that this may be the last time they see their loved ones. They do as much as they can to make the most of the journey. Nai Nai helps to make the get-together a reason to celebrate the family bonds that always transcend distance.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Farewell 3.5 stars. Saying goodbye the Chinese way.

The Farewell trailer

© 2019 Pat Mills


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