US/China (2019) Dir. Lulu Wang
Is there such a thing as a “good lie”? Many might say standard minor untruths like “Yes, that dress is fine”, “Honestly, nobody noticed” and “Yes Boris, you make a great Prime Minister” would qualify but the key there is “minor”. But if the situation was far more serious, like a terminal health diagnosis, is lying about it acceptable?
Billi Wang (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American woman raised in New York since an early age, dearly missing her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) who lives in Changchun, China. Whilst visiting her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin), Billi learns that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and may only have a few months to live.
However, the rest of the family and Nai Nai’s doctor have kept the diagnosis from her so she doesn’t worry. To afford the family one last chance to get together with Nai Nai, the wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to Japanese girl Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) is to take place in China. Billi’s parents tell her to stay in New York for fear of her telling Nai Nai the truth, but Billi defies them and goes to China anyway, but struggles to keep the secret.
Foreign culture is always a curious thing to anyone on the outside of it but this rather odd Chinese tradition is one many here in the west will find difficult to accept, however principled it may be. During one of many emotional showdowns between Billi and her family, it is explained that keeping an illness from the ailing family member is so they don’t have the burden of carrying this knowledge and can die in peace.
Put that way, it has an esoteric merit to it, the tenet being it is the one thing the family can do to honour the family member and make their last days worry free. But Billi has been raised most of her life under western sensibilities and whilst she is Chinese in blood and in heart, her ideals and outlook on life have been informed by American society, and this puts her in an awkward position indeed.
This conceit is the driving force behind The Farewell, the second film from Lulu Wang, who personal experiences form the basis of the story. “Based on a true lie” is the legend that opens the film and might be inferred by some that a farcical black comedy of sorts awaits us, but the truth (oh, the irony) is very different.
Nai Nai, it should be pointed out isn’t the matriarch’s name but the Chinese term for paternal grandmother, may be portrayed as something of a “typical” Chinese mother, always fussing over everyone, holding court with words of well-worn homespun wisdom, and stuffing her family with food, but she is a tower of strength to be admired. Of course, she may crumble under the weight of her diagnosis but all signs point to Nai Nai bearing her illness with dignity and proving her family wrong.
We may never know, but the only one who would like to find out is Billi. Her parents only forbid Billi from going to China because she is too emotional and they recognise she will want to tell Nai Nai the truth, which sounds harsh given the deceit at play. Conversely, it seems oddly fair if you look at it as protecting Billi from the heartache they believe they are sparing Nai Nai, but at 30 years-old, Billi should be able to make her own decisions.
For the audience the wonder of this film is not just contained to seeing Billi trying to reconcile the two cultures she is bound to but our own understanding of them, finding ourselves weighing up the pros and cons of both sides of the argument and see where we might align our support.
Billi is a more attuned version of the audience with her inherent knowledge of Chinese culture diluted from living in the US but still hard to shake completely. There is seldom any cause for us not to be behind Billi even when she seems petulant in arguing against the family wishes. To our eyes, she is in the right but the circumstances are dictated by something not of our ken thus who are we to judge?
The great thing about the script is that there is no judgement in it at all. Lulu Wang tells the story, puts the facts from both perspectives across, let’s it play out and effectively says “that’s life”. It’s a bittersweet ride that actually hesitates to tug at our heartstrings, with only one scene that falls into that category and even then it isn’t so contrived we roll our eyes at it when it occurs.
What Wang does that makes this work is keep everything as natural as possible under the circumstances, not limited to the majority of the dialogue being in Mandarin with patches of English, but in little things like Aiko not speaking Chinese and looking lost at every turn, the unpretentious flow of the discussions at the dinner table, and a real palpable sense of a scattered family unit bringing their own foibles to the mix.
Yet it wouldn’t work without the efforts of the cast, fronted by two interesting choices for leads. Shuzhen Zhao amazingly hadn’t acted before this film despite her age but she is an absolute marvel as Nai Nai, hitting all the right notes in her timing, poise, and general amiability. Awkwafina is a rapper turned actress, noted as the scene-stealer from Crazy Rich Asians, but she has nothing to steal here as the film is arguably her own.
It’s a contentious view but honestly, The Farewell is the film Crazy Rich Asians wanted to be but wasn’t. In terms of bringing Chinese culture to western audiences through an accessible, mainstream friendly platform, it achieves a lot for Lulu Wang, the cast, and authentic Asian cinema’s presence in the west.