Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes
Director: Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Han Chen, and Shuzhen Zhao
In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang poses a fascinating question on the logic of lying in the modern sense. Based “on [the] actual lie” of Wang’s experience with her real-life grandmother’s illness, the film is about Billi (Awkwafina), her relationship with her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), and the difficult news her Chinese family insists they all keep from the dying matriarch. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; the doctors say she maybe has three months to live. Having more or less assimilated to the American way of being since she, her Mom Jian (Diana Lin), and her Dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved West when she was still a young child, Billi naturally struggles with the prospect of keeping the known fact of her grandmother’s mortality hidden from her; especially given the cult of individualism so engrained in the Western dream. Her family has decided to stage a fake wedding back home in China so that everyone can come together for one last farewell before Nai Nai passes. Afraid Billi won’t be able to hide her emotions well enough, they plea for her to stay away, for Chinese people have a saying, “when people get cancer, they die.” Nai Nai may be sick, but knowing she’s dying will only affirm the prognosis and that will kill her for sure. At least this way, she won’t suffer from the impending knowledge of her death – she can enjoy the rest of her life worry free, as it should be.
Some spectral parallels to July’s Midsommar (coincidently another A24 release not even a month apart), The Farewell is too juxtaposing contradictory cultural modalities, namely Western (American) and Eastern (Chinese) traditional perceptions of who one’s life belongs to. As Billi’s uncle puts it, in the East, one’s life belongs to the whole – the family is to carry the burden of the bad news so that Nai Nai doesn’t have to. To ruin what’s left of her time by telling her, so to keep their individual consciences’ clean, would be needlessly unfair to Nai Nai. There is little point to life if its remainder is to be tainted by dread and despair. In the West, one’s life is committed to oneself foremost. Billi and her parents even make a note of it being illegal in America to keep news of someone’s dire ailment from them. Lying in the West is primarily done to conceal individual insecurities as opposed to keeping information from people whom aren’t necessarily entitled to know, as Billi lies about the rejection letter for the fellowship she’s applied to that everyone’s waiting to hear about. We can look at the film’s parallel lies as inversions encapsulating the valuations of their respective cultural sources. Not to say one is right and the other wrong, but to simply value life where you can, how you can.
The Farewell is nowhere near as intense as Midsommar, but those intrigued by the latter’s themes of cultural consideration will find in the former a wise account of empathy missing from the existential discourse today.