The Hidden Angle | In 'Farewell' Awkwafina’s Billi accepts walking the line between filial piety and mortality
'The Farewell' at the time of its release was lauded as a sweet surprise from director Lulu Wang as it portrayed events "based on an actual lie", a lie that Wang herself had said at some point in her life. The one thing that everyone had picked from the film was how respectfully it addressed the divide between the West and the East.
It was tagged as a heartwarming watch that tells the tale of a family which upon hearing the diagnosis of a terminal illness of the family's matriarch decide to hide the truth from her.
Billi Wang (Awkwafina), a young girl in New York walks on the streets of New York as she speaks to her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) about her day. As she speaks to her grandmother who worries constantly -- about Billi sleeping on time or if she wore a hat to take cover from the cold -- we see a bond that has been built over years.
It is clear that this relationship is something that Billi holds close to her heart. It is the warmth with which she speaks because when Billi comes home later in the day to meet her parents, this easy warmth is invisible.
If we had to draw a picture of Billi's life, there is very little that we learn about her outside of her family. However, the bit that we do see explains a lot about where Billi is right now, how she feels, what kind of a person she is and what she believes.
She is an aspiring writer who has just received a rejection letter from the fellowship program that she had applied for. She is behind on rent, and her friends are more a part of her social circle.
This is clear when we see Billi react to the news of her Nai Nai's diagnosis. Billi's father Haiyan Wang (Tzi Ma) is heartbroken and has locked himself up in his room. When Billi goes to check up on him and sees him sitting there with a grave expression, she forces them to tell her what's wrong and learns that Nai Nai has stage 4 lung cancer and the doctors have said that she has only three months left.
She is shocked, wants to see her Nai Nai as soon as possible, but her parents explain to her that the family has decided to keep this to themselves and not inform Nai Nai. This lie is what makes up for a big part of conflict within Billi.
She needs to grieve, she wants to express her love for Nai Nai, to let her know how much she means but none of that is possible. The entire family arrives in China for Billi's cousin's wedding which was arranged in a hurry.
The fact that this wedding is an excuse that the family is using to see Nai Nai is not something that Billi can comprehend. To hide grief with a mask of joy during the wedding is something that she cannot manage and so her father and mother tell her to not come in the first place.
She stays away for a week. She doesn't answer Nai Nai's calls, and she doesn't share her feelings with anyone. She internalizes it and decides to disobey her parents. When she arrives in China, it is not a foreign country to her. She was born there and lived her first six years of life in Changchun, China.
The moment that she sees her Nai Nai sitting with other relatives as they get ready for dinner, she is just surrounded in a warm hug. It looks like she is going to burst out in tears any minute, but instead tells her Nai Nai that she missed her.
Billy is confused. Should Nai Nai not know about her condition? "What if she has things to take care of?" She learns lying about a patient's condition to the patient is illegal in the U.S.
She is told that in China it is not so, and she is informed that Nai Nai did the same when her husband had been diagnosed with cancer. She told him only when his condition worsened.
Then finally, she brings it up to her father and her uncle when the two of them have a moment and that is possibly the moment that she realized how important it was for the family to keep this diagnosis a secret.
The family hopes to keep Nai Nai away from feeling the fear that one does when death comes knocking at your door. Starting from disbelief and denial, Billi travels towards acceptance with the help of her family.
We also learn that Billi was not told about her grandfather's illness either and one fine day, he passed away. She was also not allowed to visit for his funeral because of her exams. This affected her. With Nai Nai, she wants to avoid this from happening but all she gets is the noise.
During one scene especially, in the peak of when she is tired of living this lie, Billi starts playing the piano. It is something that she had stopped, and now that is the only thing that keeps the noise away.
The sound of music helps her in drowning the lie around her and this scene is just so beautifully set up. Billi is part of a whole that is now lying to a person that she loves and she hopes that she is not in the wrong here.
The scene when Billi finally understands why it is important to lie to her grandmother happens when she realizes that Nai Nai had sent the house help to collect her medical reports from the doctor on the day of her cousin's wedding. She leaves everything behind and runs like her life depended on it to the hospital.
She collects the reports and forges it to make it look like Nai Nai is only suffering from a cold and nothing else. When the family sits opposite Nai Nai who reads the reports and hears her laugh out and say it was nothing, that's when Billi has finally accepted why Nai Nai believed in lying to her husband and why the family now believes in lying to Nai Nai.
This also leads her to accept the conflict within herself, something that was until then boiling under the surface. With her tearful goodbye to Nai Nai, Billi accepts the distance that her family had put between her and Nai Nai, she understands and accepts why Nai Nai still believes in living life the way she does, and she accepts that it is okay to feel at home in two places.
‘The Hidden Angle’ is a weekly column examines narratives, frames and sounds that add value to movies and shows but are not part of conversations surrounding their success or failure. The column will be published Fridays and we start with the Oscar 2020 hopefuls.