BY AFRA NARIMAN
The Farewell (2019)
Directed by: Lulu Wang
Stars: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
Billi’s family returns to China for a cousin’s wedding that was planned at the last minute as an excuse to get the family together in the wake of the news that Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai has been diagnosed with cancer. The family decides not to tell her about her illness, as most families in Chinese culture would do the same.
The Farewell should have been nominated for an academy award. The fact that it wasn’t blows my mind. As soon as the title screen comes on: “Based on a real lie,” we know that we’re in store for a personal, yet comedic experience. It could have just said “Based on a true story,” like every other film that is such, but it chose the words real lie, not just because the true story is about a lie, but because those choice of words set the mood for what’s to come. The Farewell balances its emotional elements and its comedic elements as good as any film ever has. It never over-does a joke or allows the film’s inherent somberness reveal itself for too long or too deep.
The film intimately focuses on the value of family and the dynamics that can play out in complicated moments. It is also a film about culture. Not only does the film elegantly display scenic portrayals of Chinese culture; it also explicitly details the differences between the East and the West. In context of the matter at hand — which is whether or not it is the right thing to lie and tell Nai Nai that she is okay even though she has been diagnosed with cancer without knowing it — the distinction between the East and the West and how they handle life and ultimately death rises to the surface. Since Billi grew up in America, she is representing the American belief that people have the right to know if they are dying in order of properly say goodbye. Contrary to that, it is repeatedly explained that in Chinese culture, most families will opt not to tell a family member if they have a terminal illness. During a family dinner, as they sit around a huge circular table, the explanation from Billi’s Uncle reveals why the West and the East differ so much in their position on this matter:
This idea of “The One” or ‘The Whole” is present in various countries, religions and philosophies of the East, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. Evidently, this notion spreads to all aspects of life and decision making, and dictates how people approach the act of living and ultimately, the notion of death.
From the family’s perspective, it is all of their responsibility to take on the emotional burden for Nai Nai by keeping the truth from her and allowing her to live what time she has left in peace and without fear. Earlier in the film Billi’s mother tells her that the Chinese have a saying: “When people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” They didn’t want Nai Nai’s already shortened time to be shortened further by any fear or distress she would feel if they told her. As it turned out; it worked. After the film concludes, we are shown a real-life video of the grandmother that the film was based on, still alive, dancing and exercising. She lived through her diagnosis.
At the end of the film, before Billi and her parents leave to return to America, thinking that this is their final farewell with Nai Nai, Billi shares a special moment with her grandmother. Nai Nai gives her touching life advice:
In other words; life won’t always go the way you planned or envisioned it would. You’ll encounter obstacles, but you have to be willing to sometimes just turn and go in a different direction, rather than force your way through every single obstacle. Life isn’t just what you do, it’s also how you do it; so do it with grace and enjoy the journey to your inevitable destination. Don’t feel lost if one door closes, because if you keep moving, another will open — just believe in yourself and you will succeed.
The Farewell is a touching and purely human portrayal of family, culture, love and the nature of lies. It asks; Is there such thing as a good lie? It offers the different cultural perspectives to the answer, but ultimately keeps the conversation open. The film’s orchestral soundtrack is commanding and exhilarating. It rises and mellows with the film’s sporadic moods and keeps you connected and engaged. The Farewell is funny and endearing, seriously emotional and pleasurably easy to watch. It keeps a constant energy for the entirety of the film and offers us something cinematically unique. It is an excellent example of effective and powerful storytelling.