Home is often defined as the place where you’re from or the place where you live or, sometimes, it can be the place where you find yourself. The Harry Potter series is an example of this, as Harry finds his home in Hogwarts, despite only living there from the age of 11. Why is Hogwarts Harry’s home? It is where he feels he is himself, where he is surrounded by loved ones and it is the place he feels such a strong connection to. Hogwarts is his home. However, for Lulu Wang’s heroine Billi, home is not so easy to define. She was born in China, then moved to America and lives her life in a way that many third culture kids can relate to. But we’ve seen all this before. In shows such as Master of None and Ramy, the two protagonists are trying to navigate the amalgamation of their two cultures, whilst also trying to forge a unique identity for themselves. The difference in The Farewell is Wang’s masterful introspection of the relationship between her protagonist and ‘home,’ as opposed to being an exploration of her identity. Although, inevitably, her protagonist’s identity is closely linked to her definition of home.
In Billi’s case, she is struggling following the rejection of her Fellowship application, but still makes sure she has regular conversations with her Nai Nai, who lives in China. From the beginning of the film, Wang is slowly letting the audience know that Billi has never quite forgotten her old home because of her close relationship with her grandmother. She is less comfortable in her parents’ house and we can feel the tension between them, especially when they tell Billi about Nai Nai’s diagnosis and their decision to keep Nai Nai in the dark about it. It further escalates when they stop Billi from going to China to see her grandmother one last time because they’re worried she will suddenly reveal the truth. This further isolates Billi from a home she desperately misses but had no choice in leaving and, now, a home she does not even have the choice to return to. As the film goes on, Billi eventually decides to go to China against her parents’ wishes and Wang shows the comfort Billi feels there, despite struggling with the family’s decision not to tell her grandmother that she is dying. She slips back into familiar habits that have been hibernating inside her since she left for America.
Her two homes are effortlessly linked by her grandmother, who exists in both of them.
In the most emotional scene of the film, Billi heartbreakingly explains the difficulties of finding home in two places. There is a home in her mind of the China she grew up in, the grandparents who loved her, the language and the food of a home she always cherished. But this China is gone. In its place is a new China that has developed since Billi’s departure to America. The only remnant of her childhood home is her grandmother. True, she does not live in the same place she did before but she is still her Nai Nai. She is Billi’s anchor to the place that, in her heart, still feels like home. So, when she finds out that her grandmother might die, Billi realises that she is losing her old home. It is a guttural punch in the heart for anyone who has experienced the fear of losing their childhood and their memories because of harsh, adult reality. Even when Billi returns to America, she does not feel like she has come back to her other home because her link, her anchor, is at risk of disappearing. In a sense, Billi is floating without anything to ground her.
With the loss of her anchor, Billi’s entire identity begins to slip away and her moments of true happiness only occur when she is spending time with her Nai Nai, who is oblivious to the truth. As the film goes on, it becomes obvious that Nai Nai is Billi’s home and with the loss of her Nai Nai comes the loss of her home. She has no reason to return to China anymore because the reason for her visits will no longer exist. Back in America, she feels separate and distant from China because her Nai Nai is not there to anchor her between the two. In a world where people are having to leave their homes, adopt new places as their homes, Wang’s film gives us a sense of comfort. Home is not in the places we’re from or even the places we live. Home is in the people who have helped us forge our identities, who know us best and who will make us feel tethered even when everything around is changing. Rather than being attached to a place, Wang’s film tells us of the power of building your homes in your relationships with the ones you love.
by Aleena Augustine
Aleena is a Classics graduate who splits her time between High Wycombe and wherever the latest film or TV show she is bingeing is set. She enjoys watching rom-coms, coming of age films, animations and comedies featuring a strong female ensemble (thank you, Bridesmaids). Her favourite films are Before Sunrise, Inside Out, Zodiac and When Harry Met Sally. You can read her blog, That’s What She Said and more of her writing at Music Bloggery.