In Lulu Wang’s film “The Farewell,” Billi (Awkwafina) returns to China to be with her dying grandmother — although the entire family is keeping it a secret from Nai Nai.
The aunt’s singing dog, Ellen has gotten the most attention in the movie, although she’s only in a few scenes. (The aunt and the dog are played by Wang’s real aunt and her own pet chihuahua.)
The birds that appear in both Billi’s apartment in New York and her hotel room in China are more symbolic.
As the filmmaker told Slate:
The birds appearing in New York and then reappearing in China for me was … I wanted to put something that could potentially stand for something magical as a sign, but I wanted to do it in a very realistic way. I think signs are only signs if you believe that they’re signs. You can make it what you want to make of it, and that very much relates to this lie with Nai Nai, because people are going to believe what they want to believe, whether it was my uncle with his probiotics, or family friends with prayer, or the [protective power of the] lie itself. If you are a spiritual person and you look for things, you may see signs. But if you don’t believe in that, then you’ll just go, ‘Oh, it’s just a bird.’ So that was my way of reemphasizing this idea of perspective, that things are based on how you see them.”
Wang also explained to Thrillist: “The connection of these two countries that are across the world from each other, but that there is a connection even if it’s not physical. There’s a spiritual connection or energetic — spiritual maybe sounds too whoop-dee-doo. There’s energy. Things that we don’t see. There are things that we don’t see that are in motion that dictate our lives that we are not in control of.”
Birds appear again in the film’s final scene, when Billi returns to New York. As she stops and says a loud “HA!” like her Nai Nai doing her tai chi routine, birds scatter from a tree near Nai Nai’s apartment back in China.
As Esther Zuckerman writes on Thrillist, “This family is linked across continents; their intangible bonds expressed perfectly in that final visual.”