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‘The Farewell’ explores the fibs one family tells in love

Is there ever such a thing as a good lie? Even when it’s told as part of a farewell?

Billi, a struggling young artist in Brooklyn, isn’t so sure.

I mean, yes, she generally lies to her family about all kinds of things. But those are mostly insignificant fibs, such as telling her grandmother Nai Nai that she always wears a hat when it’s cold outside so that the older woman won’t worry about her. Or she might tell a lie of omission, such as failing to tell her parents that she’s behind in her rent. Those kinds of lies are, frankly, no big deal to Billi.

But when she learns about her family’s Really Big Lie, it nearly blows her away.

Billi accidentally finds out that her beloved Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer! But the whole family—all of Billi’s aunts, uncles and cousins— have decided not to give her the bad news. They want to keep her ignorant of the prognosis, even though she may only have weeks left to live, believing it better that the old woman live out her life without fear or grief.


CAST Awkwafina as Billi; Tzi Ma as Haiyan; Diana Lin as Jian; Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai; Han Chen as Hao hao; Aoi Mizuhara as Aiko

IN THEATERS July 12, 2019

The whole clan has gone so far as setting up a staged wedding, between a cousin and his short-term girlfriend, just so they could have an excuse to get together in China for one last loving farewell to Nai Nai, who’s none the wiser.

Oh, and on top of all that, they weren’t gonna tell Billi anything about it at all! They were all certain that she would give the whole scheme away the minute her loving Nai Nai looked her in the eyes. And frankly, they were probably right about that.

Who came up with this nutty plan any way, Billi wonders angrily? How could they not tell Nai Nai? Doesn’t she deserve a chance to say goodbye, too?

Billi decides there’s only one thing to do: She must make her way to China to be with her extended family and her dying grandmother, no matter what it takes. She’ll go. She’ll love. She’ll laugh. She’ll cry.

And … she’ll lie like a rug.

The one thing that’s unquestionable in The Farewell is how much Nai Nai’s family loves her. She’s the family matriarch. The rock. The one whose opinions and values have shaped the entire clan in profound ways. And though one could question the choice to deceive her, no one can question each family member’s deep love for this grand old lady.

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Billi is initially aghast at the idea of deceiving Nai Nai. But as the film unfolds, it gently explores that question, of whether there’s any such thing as a “good” lie. Billi’s not the only one struggling mightily to keep the enormous secret. It repeatedly pops up in the family discussions outside Nai Nai’s hearing. Billi’s dad even ruminates on the idea that in America, such a lie “would be illegal.” These tug-and-pull discussions speak to just how much this extended family loves its bossy-but-loving matriarch. And even though the family members are spread out to various points on the globe, we see how the hereditary glue of family responsibility and love, as well as strong Chinese cultural traditions, unite and strengthen this grieving clan.

In fact, Billi increasingly wrestles with the idea of being so far away from people whom she loves, as well as the Chinese culture that she left behind when her family moved to America. “One of the few good memories from my childhood was my summers with Nai Nai,” she muses. An uncle also opines that family in China is particularly important, “In the East, one’s life is part of the whole,” he notes, contrasting it with the American value placed on pursuing individual happiness.

Even though Nai Nai is feeling the ill effects of her disease (though she has no idea how sick she is, since her doctors conspire with her family to keep the harsh news from her), she never lets it slow her down or dim her loving spirit. She pushes forward, fulfilling her duties, speaking words of encouragement and taking time whenever she can to winkingly motivate and persuade her “stupid girl” of a granddaughter (which she says as a playful term of endearment) in positive directions. But if anything, she strives to take any negative worry off Billi’s shoulders. “Life is not about what you do, it’s about how you do it,” she tells the young woman.

We also learn that what Billi’s family has chosen to do isn’t something that they dreamed up on their own. In fact, we see that there’s a long Chinese tradition of not telling terminally ill elderly people the truth about their condition in an attempt to spare them from the associated pain that comes with it. This certainly doesn’t resolve the fundamental ethical issue at the core of the film, but we do see how this tradition is exerting its influence on Billi’s extended family.

The movie shows the spiritual side of Chinese individuals. While not Christian, the song “Come Healing,” an almost hymn-like Leonard Cohen song in the movie’s soundtrack, speaks to broken people and poetically calls for healing of the body, mind, and spirit.

To illustrate the positive side of the American culture, Billi’s parents tell a story of a pastor giving them a key to the church so that young Billi could freely practice her piano lessons when the building was closed.

A movie filled with sad people crying can be an emotional affair. A movie of sad people purposely not crying can be even more so. In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang takes that concept a step further.

Wang introduces us to a family that gathers together to talk about their past, their leavings, their stayings, their losses, their memories, their regrets. They do everything they can to gently bottle-up any personal sadness, even as they try to let a loved one know just how much she means to them.

Oh and, out of kindness, they lie their faces off.

The crying part? Well, that’s left to us.

Writer/director Wang reported that when she initially offered this semi-autobiographical tale to studios, they wanted her to reshape the script into something closer to an Asian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Thankfully, she didn’t do that.

Instead she crafted a tasty cinematic stew of family depression and grief, hugs and laughter, memories and regrets. It’s spiced with sweet, encouraging conversations and funny family dinners, examinations of the differences and similarities of Chinese and American cultures, and some blatant fibbing.

As we said, this is not a “Christian” film but it has a powerful message that resonates. Watching it you’ll find something pretty close to food for the familial soul.


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