The lies in The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s sophomore effort, are multifaceted—some big, some large, all uttered with the intent to placate, soothe, and protect. In the film’s opening sequence, Billi (Awkwafina, radiant and heartbreaking), walks down a busy street in New York on the phone with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), catching up and telling lies. Nai Nai is concerned about the weather and asks if she’s wearing a hat; Billi replies that she is, though it is clear to us that she’s not. There are other lies, too, that trip off the tongue, scattered throughout the film, that make it seem like lying is tantamount to breathing—a necessary side effect of the arduous work of being alive. Keeping track of the lies sprinkled throughout the film is pointless, because, with the exception of one big whopper, they are are harmless: a simple reinterpretation of facts such that the answer to any question asked poses no harm. A lie is a shield, deployed in a last-ditch attempt to spare someone from real hurt. Often times, the small lie goes unnoticed, woven into the fabric of existence, and otherwise ignored. But sometimes, the lie in question is larger than itself and its consequences, far reaching.
In The Farewell, a big lie rests at the center of everything: Nai Nai has Stage IV lung cancer, and her entire family is keeping the truth from her. Instead of staging a protracted, drawn-out end of life, Billi’s family has orchestrated a reason for everyone to get together in Changchun, China: Billi’s cousin is getting married to a woman he’s been dating for three months, part actual wedding and part ruse. Billi’s parents, who moved to the United States from Changchun when Billi was a child, are hesitant to let her come to China at all, fearing her American emotions will give everything away.
Wang’s story is based in part on an “actual lie,” made famous by her 2016 This American Life segment that details the plot of the movie she eventually made: there is a real Nai Nai, and she has lived six years past her cancer diagnosis, blissfully unaware of the fact that she’s ill—something that might change when The Farewell plays in China. In an interview with The Atlantic, Wang said that she wasn’t overly concerned with what might happen: “I haven’t had time to think about it,” she said, placing the onus of responsibility on the shoulders of her father and aunt, the two architects of the lie. “They’re going to come up with a better solution than I am. And they should.”
The lie in question is the sort that, in America, as Billi points out, might be illegal. Keeping the truth about a diagnosis from a patient certainly violates ethics in Western society, but as the audience is informed up front, these lies are generally accepted as status quo—besides, Chinese law doesn’t require doctors to tell their patients about their diagnoses, leaving clear the space for lies both big and small to flourish. Any marks left in Nai Nai’s body from the cancer are written off as “benign shadows” in her test results, which are doctored to conceal the truth. “Chinese people say cancer doesn’t kill,” one of Billi’s relatives tells her. “But fear does.”
Mental and emotional acrobatics of the sort that keep lies like these afloat wear down on Billi, whose parents are dealing not only with the imminent loss of Nai Nai, but also with the unexpected family reunion surrounding it. Billi’s parents moved to America and are therefore, according to them, mostly American, by dint of passport and also location. But their response to major life events, such as Nai Nai’s illness, are firmly rooted in Chinese traditions. Wang doesn’t dwell on this in the way that some moviegoers might expect.
Unlike films like The Joy Luck Club or Eat Drink Man Woman, aspects of East Asian culture that might feel foreign to some audiences aren’t presented as teachable moments, but rather as a fact of life. Wang’s intimacy with the subject matter had the possibility of resulting in a mawkish mess—sentimental and tear-jerking with no real reason—but she expertly intercuts moments of real pathos with humor. There are moments of recognition in some of the even more infuriating scenes that made me laugh through reluctant tears: Billi at her parent’s house, doing laundry, and skillfully brushing off questions from her mother about money, time, the future. “I’m fine,” she says. “Everything is fine.”
It’s this notion of “fine” that pervades throughout the film, underscored by the pressing reality of Nai Nai’s disease; her wracking coughs are nothing serious, just part of a head cold she hasn’t quite kicked and the “medicine” her son gives her from Japan is something akin to vitamins. The human mind, willing itself to believe that nothing is amiss, is quite powerful and this magical thinking propels Nai Nai, and by extension, her family, into living a double life. Everything is technically fine because at face value, everyone seems okay. A lie is an incantation whispered to protect. “If it’s for good, it’s not really a lie,” Nai Nai’s doctor tells a stunned Billi in English, as her grandmother beams on, not understanding a single word, but assuming, of course, that everything is fine. Interrogating whether or not everything actually is fine and then sorting through the result of that assessment is messy, complicated, work, better left for the aftermath.
The spirit of the collective—family over everything, including the family you might have made for yourself—is the heart of this film. Lies strengthen the family unit because the space created by the fiction is its own special secret, a neat trick that allows for closeness when time and geography erode bonds that were otherwise strong.
Alternating between grief, anger, and disbelief, Awkwafina shines the most in her scenes with Nai Nai, at first falling dutifully into the role of beloved granddaughter. Nai Nai pinches her cheeks, her “little round butt,” and proffers the fattest, most succulent shrimp to Billi to eat, feeding her in a way that makes it clear that rejecting the food isn’t an option. But Billi’s entire family, including her parents, are on edge: if the lie becomes apparent, the bottom falls out. It hinges on Billi and whether or not she can save face—for her grandmother, for her family, and then, maybe, for herself.
The Farewell is currently playing in theaters