There’s a brief prefatory note in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell that gives viewers an idea of what to expect: “Based on an actual lie.” The film spun out of a 2016 piece Wang recorded for This American Life. I still haven’t listened to the story, perhaps because I want to inhabit the space of The Farewell as a film a little while longer. It’s the sort of movie that’s lingered with me and will continue to linger, in large part because of its humane blend of heartbreak and comedy, and also the way Wang seems to find the right emotional button to put at the end of a scene. She drops so many subtle observations about the ways families operate through the stories they tell and what they withhold. The characters deepen every time I turn the film over in my head; there’s so much life that exists well beyond the runtime.
The Farewell might be one of the most honest movies of 2019, which is ironic since the entire movie is about the lies people tell and why they’re told. Most of the lies in the film are white lies of varying magnitudes, though the film introduces another apt phrase for the on-screen mendacity: “benign shadows.” That’s how some characters refer to the troubling blotch in an x-ray. It sounds better than “tumors” or “cancerous growths,” that’s for sure.
If the family in The Farewell can convince their nai nai that she doesn’t have cancer and that everything’s fine, maybe they can make her final weeks of life joyful and peaceful. Maybe. It gets complicated.
Director: Lulu Wang
Release Date: July 12, 2019
So here’s the plan. Everyone is going to Changchun to visit nai nai (Zhao Shuzhen) one last time but without mentioning her terminal illness. Everyone except for Billi (Awkwafina, in another star-making role). Billi’s a broke writer in Brooklyn whose parents don’t think she can convincingly lie to her grandmother; Billi’s mom in particular (Diana Lin) is afraid her daughter will just wind up sulking and making nai nai upset. Rather than saying tearful goodbyes, the family will stage a fake wedding between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend. They’ve only been dating for three months, but nai nai doesn’t need to be bothered with the details. Despite these plans, Billi travels on her own to China to say her goodbyes.
All of the tension, humor, and heartbreak of The Farewell hinges on the success or failure of this big lie. It’s such an absurd situation, but it’s also carried out with this profound desire to protect a loved one from confronting their grief and mortality. There’s a fascinating generational tension on display that speaks volumes about the experience of first-generation children and their immigrant parents. Billi thinks nai nai should know, but her mother says the lie is tradition and it must be observed. Her mother cites a Chinese saying that it’s not the cancer that kills, but the grief of knowing you’ll die.
Every time Billi’s on screen or alone with nai nai, there’s a chance she might tell the truth out of sadness and immense love. If this is a last goodbye, shouldn’t it be done with total honesty, with the ability to say everything you’ve wanted to rather than holding back? The same tension is evident with Billi’s cousin and his girlfriend (Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara, respectively) every time they’re on screen. They have this awkward, stunned look about them, at once mortified that they’re perpetuating such an insane lie but dutifully restrained as they try to make nai nai happy. Better an absurd wedding than a precursor to a funeral. The facade cracks every now and then in the form of frowns, slouches, and bouts of sudden, uncontrollable sobbing. Any time there’s a dour mood, I wondered if nai nai noticed and if she wondered what’s really going on.
These are lies that obscure the reality of an illness but they also feel like oblique ways of saying “thank you” and “I love you” and “don’t be afraid” and “I will miss you” and “please don’t go.” That is the honest human heart amid all of The Farewell’s lies. This indirect, coded, convoluted communication is the way families imperfectly say all that they want. Saying these things directly would be too painful, or the emotions are so overwhelming that they require some sort of intermediary. In this case, lying is preferable to being vulnerable since that state of vulnerability would be the cause of worry.
The generational/cultural tensions and unspoken sentiments play in both directions. We learn that nai nai similarly lied to one of her relatives when they were terminally ill. Does she suspect something about the way her family is acting? It’s been 25 years since her two sons have been in the same place at the same time, her grandson is marrying a woman he’s barely been dating, and her granddaughter seems especially glum and tender around her. Does nai nai know she’s got cancer, and is she publicly playing dumb for the sake of her family? The family may be lying to comfort nai nai in her final weeks of life, but perhaps she’s similarly lying to them out of appreciation for their ruse. In playing along, nai mai may be saying “of course I know” and “don’t worry about me” and “I’m so glad you’re all here” and “let’s be happy together one last time.”
That sense of preventing worry trickles down into the smaller, more familiar lies of The Farewell. When Billi tells her dad (Tzi Ma) that she’s doing fine financially and she doesn’t know if she received a writing fellowship (she didn’t), she does it because she doesn’t want him to worry and to avoid his sense of disappointment. Conversely, when Billi’s dad says that things are fine at home and he hasn’t been drinking, he does it to keep up appearances, propping up this idea that Billi can always find some stability in her parents and their home. Since their love and concern for one another is without question, in both cases the underlying truth they both want to express (but they won’t allow themselves to say) is that things are bad right now, but only for now, and what I really need is your support. Then again, adding another layer to the examination of lies, perhaps the lies we tell our loved ones are also the lies we tell ourselves when we feel helpless.
Wang’s writing is so good in exploring what’s said and unsaid, and even what’s unseen. For instance, Billi’s a writer, but we rarely if ever see her writing. What a terribly despondent state for any writer to be in. Billi’s never needs to overtly state how directionless she is at the moment since her lies and her little tells in body language say it all. We also hear about nai nai’s old house, which is gone now, replaced by new developments and an artificial rainbow. It’s the memories that matter, and the same applies to the absence of places where these memories played out.
The cast complements the writing, particularly Awkwafina, Shuzhen, Lin, and Ma. Awkwafina eschews her scene-stealing comic personas from Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, instead displaying unexpected dramatic depth. There’s the awkward tension between Awkwafina, Lin, and Ma, which is perfect for disappointed adult children and their parents still trying to hold things together. Shuzhen is the film’s anchor, and one of The Farewell’s best surprises. There is so much warmth and mystery in the way nai nai interacts with the other characters, which is again the result of her outward face and the sense of something concealed.
In several scenes, Wang smartly keeps one character’s face in the frame while another character’s face is turned away. We can read the emotions in one performance while we’re left to guess about the other. It’s just another artful depiction of what we show our loved ones, and what we don’t tell.