Study guide: Lulu Wang's The Farewell
Is it right to lie to someone if it spares them pain?
In this cross-cultural narrative, Billi is a Chinese-born American with fond memories of her childhood in Changchun and the care of her loving grandmother, her Nǎinai 奶奶. After learning her parents are returning to China for a family wedding, Billi finds out it is an excuse for the family to visit Nǎinai one last time. They need this excuse, as the family has decided not to tell Nǎinai she has been diagnosed with cancer. They fear the distress might hasten her death. Billi is told that this relates to the Chinese belief in collective responsibility and family duty, but from her American perspective, the secrecy is deceitful and disempowers her grandmother. As the narrative plays out, Billi grapples with these conflicting worldviews as she tries to work out where she stands within these two cultures.
Lulu Wang, 100 mins, China and USA, 2019, PG
Year levels: this resource can be adapted for years 7–12
Subjects: Chinese Language
Based on a true story
The Farewell is based on actual events drawn from the life and experience of writer and director Lulu Wang. After writing the script Wang struggled to finance the film because of the Mandarin dialogue, the all-Asian cast and the unconventional narrative. Both American and Chinese investors were confused about the target audience: Was this film for Chinese or American viewers? It was only after Wang scripted her story for radio and presented it on This American Life that she found a producer interested in helping her get the funds together to shoot the film.
- Listen to “What you don’t know”, the story Wang told in an episode of This American Life.
- To get an idea of the challenges Wang faced getting her film financed, check out some of the interviews she gave when The Farewell was first released.
Language in the film
Wang speaks Chinese fluently but does not write it, so she wrote her script in English and then had it translated into Mandarin. However, in the process of being translated, the story lost its naturalness and authenticity and Wang asked her parents to make it more conversational and real: “They were of great help because they not only know the language, they also know all the real people involved and what they sound like in real life."
- Watch Lulu Wang’s fascinating account of the complexities of writing a Chinese script without being able to read or write Chinese. (You will also learn how a script is formatted in Chinese.)
Nora Lum/Awkwafina who plays the main character, Billi, does not speak Chinese fluently and her character’s limited vocabulary and stilted speech became one of the ways that her struggle with her Chinese identity was communicated.
|1. Describe some of the instances where you noticed that Billi is not a fluent Chinese speaker.|
|2. Billi’s limited Chinese relates to the fact that Billi and her parents speak in English. Considering that Billi’s parents’ first language is Chinese and Billi only spoke Chinese when they first went to America, why do you think they speak to each other in English? Is there any evidence in the story to explain this decision?|
Location and setting
The Farewell is set in both New York and Changchun. Changchun is the actual city that Lulu Wang’s grandparents come from and where she spent time living with them when she was a child. Wang and her team initially thought it would be easier to film in Beijing, but they decided the changing cityscape of Changchun is so central to the story the film needed to be made there. Wang filmed scenes inside and outside her real-life grandmother’s actual apartment, the cemetery scene took place at her grandfather’s grave and the wedding banquet was filmed at the same venue as her cousin’s actual wedding.
Find out more about Changchun:
|1. Where is it located in China?|
|2. How has it changed in the last thirty years or so?|
|3. Describe features such as industry, climate and landscape.|
|4. Describe your impressions of Changchun. How is the city depicted in the film?|
|5. List the ways that the changing landscape of modern China is communicated through the representation of Changchun. What stood out for you?|
|6. The film begins and ends in New York. How is New York represented in The Farewell? What is being communicated about life in New York? What do we learn about Billi’s life in New York?|
|7. Compare the depiction of New York with that of Changchun:|
Wang focuses a great deal on interior spaces in The Farewell.
|8. Why do you think she does this?|
|9. How does this relate to the story she is telling?|
|10. Which interior scenes stood out for you? Explain.|
China's past and present
Nǎinai fought with the Chinese army during the revolution and invites her old friends from the army to the wedding celebrations.
|1. Find out more about the Chinese Communist Revolution.|
|2. How would you describe Nǎinai and her friends’ memories of being in the army? Does this surprise you?|
|3. Why do you think this scene was included in the film? What do we learn from it? How does it add to our understanding of Nǎinai’s character?|
|4. Billi’s Chinese cousins argue that China not the United States is a land of opportunity and wealth.|
|5. Find out more about China’s transition to a market economy.|
|6. How is the growing wealth in China communicated in the film?|
In the scene at the cemetery, we see a mingling of past and present attitudes and rituals.
|7. Find out more about Chinese attitudes to death How are some of these traditional values and attitudes communicated in the scene in the cemetery?|
|8. What was your response to that scene?|
|9. What did you learn?|
|10. How did it add to our understanding of the family?|
Culture and tradition
Exploring cultural difference
Chinese culture traditionally privileges relationships between people over individual rights, with family placed at the centre of people’s lives. In many western countries, the emphasis is more on individual autonomy. This is particularly the case in the United States which is founded on principles of freedom and individual fulfilment.
|1. What are some of the ways that this cultural difference is explored in The Farewell?|
|2. Billi’s identity is formed out of both Chinese and American culture. How does this split affect the way she thinks and feels about family and about herself?|
|3. In The Farewell, the family considers they are protecting Nǎinai by hiding the seriousness of her illness from her and choosing to make it their burden instead. What are the pros and cons of their actions?|
Focus on the scene in the hospital where Billi and the English-educated doctor discuss the rights and wrongs of not telling Nǎinai the truth.
|4. Do you think there is such a thing as a good lie?|
For Lulu Wang, the story is ultimately about accepting different approaches and perspectives:
“It's about having the strength to have your own opinions, but also having the grace to acknowledge that others have theirs."
|5. Is this the message you took from the film? If so, do you agree? If not, what do you think the film’s message is?|
The complex and sometimes stressful relationships between different family members are at the heart of The Farewell.
|1. To what extent does the family in The Farewell continue to draw on tradition and the traditional Chinese family structure?|
|2. Describe and explain the relationship Billi has with her parents.|
|3. Why is Nǎinai so special to Billi?|
|4. What do you think about Little Nǎinai and the support she gives her sister?|
|5. Why do you think Hao Hao and Aiko agree to get married when they hardly know each other?|
Lulu Wang considers the most important conversation between Billi and Nǎinai to be the one that takes place while Aiko and Hao Hao have their photos taken.
|6. What is communicated in this scene?|
|7. What does it tell us about Billi and Nǎinai’s relationship?|
|8. How does Billi respond to Nǎinai’s request to be more outgoing and confident at the wedding?|
|9. Even people who don’t speak Chinese will leave the cinema able to say “grandma”!|
|10. List all of the formal and informal terms for family members you already know and then add some new (and more complex) ones to your list.|
Food and family
Billi’s father and uncle left China with their families many years earlier to make a new life in another country. Their decision to leave becomes a source of tension when the extended family gathers for lunch at a restaurant.
|1. What tensions and issues emerge in this scene?|
|2. This scene is one of many family scenes features food. Why is food such an important part of the family get-togethers?|
Each meal has a different mood and communicates new information about the family and what they are feeling.
When describing the way the food is depicted in The Farewell, Awkwafina (Billi) said: “I’ve never seen food portrayed so coldly, especially Asian food. You never see Asian food portrayed like it’s the last thing you ever want to eat.”
|3. What are some of the things we viewers learn through watching the family cook and eat?|
|4. What does Awkwafina mean by the food being portrayed “coldly”?|
|5. How is this sense that the food is “the last thing you ever want to eat” communicated in the film? (There are a number of ways this impression is created.)|
|6. On a lighter note, think about how many of the delicious foods you recognised and can remember the family eating. Compare your list with the rest of the students in your class.|
Remember how upset Nǎinai is that crab is going to be served at the wedding rather than the lobster she ordered? This article explains why.
This personal account from an American woman with a Chinese family heritage is inspired by The Farewell. It highlights the central role food plays in Chinese family life, as well as the stress it can cause.
If you don’t have access to a copy of the film, watch the trailer as a reminder of some of the visual language used in The Farewell.
Note down visual elements:
- the use of light and colour
- different shot choices
- and the way that people are positioned in the shot
- the way that people are positioned in relation to each other
- the actors’ facial expressions, gestures and movements
Do you think the trailer does a good job of communicating what the film is about? Explain your answer.
Lulu Wang has worked very hard to publicise her film and has given many great interviews that provide further background to the story she is telling and the creative decisions she made as writer-director.
Write a review
Imagine you have been assigned the job of writing a review of The Farewell for a Chinese audience.
|1. Do you think Chinese viewers would enjoy the film?|
|2. What aspects of the film would you need to explain?|
|3. What aspects would be familiar and appealing?|
According to Lulu Wang, The Farewell is an American film as it portrays events from Billi’s perspective.
|4. With this in mind, write a brief description of the events that take place in the film from the perspective of one of the Chinese characters in the film.|
About this resource
This resource has been written by ACMI educator Susan Bye and targets Chinese Language students. It focuses on Chinese culture, themes relating to family and film analysis.