This weekend I saw the movie The Farewell, which is based on real life events experienced by the writer and director, Lulu Wang. If you're a listener of This American Life on NPR, you'll likely recognize the premise from Wang's episode, titled "In Defense of Ignorance."
Wang's family learned that her grandmother had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given only a few months to live. Rather than tell her the severity of her condition, they lied and planned a family wedding instead, serving as a ruse for bringing everyone together.
In the film adaptation, the main character's name is Billi, a young, single woman living in New York City and trying to make it as a writer. Billi is played by Awkwafina, best known for her role as Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians. While Peik Lin was famous for her over-the-top outfits and hysterical punchlines, the role of Billi is much more subdued. Billi is almost always wearing a plain t-shirt, in a neutral color, and no makeup. This part came to life through facial expressions, body language, and raw emotion.
The entire movie, Billi is stuck between wanting the best for her grandmother, and wanting to honor her family's wishes.
Billi's grandmother, Nai Nai, is played by Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen. In an interview with Variety, Wang shares, "Shuzhen had the opportunity to meet the real Nai Nai before shooting began. The real Nai Nai thought she was just meeting a friend, as she was still unaware of her diagnosis."
The relationship between Nai Nai an Billi is both endearing and heartbreaking, as only one of them knows their time together is limited. There's a scene toward the end of the film where Billi is getting ready to head back to New York and hugs Nai Nai goodbye. It took about two seconds for my eyes to well up and my lip to start quivering.
I knew this going on, but I think it's worth noting, that almost the entire movie is in Mandarin (with English subtitles). The themes are so universal - family, aging, grief - that you almost don't even notice.
The movie clocks in at one hour and forty minutes. When it ends, you're sad to be parting ways with this family.
After I got home from the theater, I fell down a rabbit hole, reading dozens of interviews with Wang. My favorite one was with Tasha Robinson of The Verge. If you're interested in learning more about Wang, her family, and her experience bringing all of this to the big screen, definitely check it out.
One final fun fact, Wang went to Boston College!
Tell me, did you see the movie? What did you think? Were you a blubbering mess at the end?