Particularly if you’re American-born and raised, there’s a fascinating moral dilemma at the heart of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell that will get a vigorous, very emotional and likely unresolved workout: should you tell a loved one that they’re dying? The immediate answer feels like it should be “of course,” but Wang’s film, set in mainland China and based upon her experiences with her own family, slowly and delicately draws out some perspectives that are less obvious (both culturally and narratively) but become more and more convincing as its story unfolds. If nothing else an essential reminder of how important it is to stay in touch with aging relatives - especially grandmas - The Farewell is a beautifully understated but deeply affecting story about the lie that one Chinese family tells in order to tap into a greater truth.
Crazy Rich Asians breakout Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling writer living in New York not far from her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), who immigrated with her to the U.S. when she was a child. Billi still maintains a close relationship, albeit via telephone, with her scrappy grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), so she’s deeply upset to learn that she’s been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. But after her parents explain that the family has decided not to tell her grandmother about her condition, and intend to visit China under the guise of a marriage between a distant cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), in order to spend what will likely be their final moments with Nai Nai, Billi books her own ticket and crashes the impromptu family reunion.
Knowing her penchant for emotional outbursts, Billi’s parents worry that she’ll inadvertently spoil their ruse. But in deference to her family’s wishes, Billi agrees to go along with the lie in order to spend time with Nai Nai, even as she privately attempts to convince the rest of them that the right thing to do is tell her the truth.
Not just as writer and director but a Chinese-American immigrant straddling two cultures, Wang’s intimate relationship to the material is immediately apparent; she manages a unique and balanced perspective both about Billi’s insistence that Nai Nai deserves to know her diagnosis, and Billi’s family’s belief that telling her will accelerate her physical deterioration. From an outside perspective, that belief feels not only like superstition, but reinforces a possibly unhealthy cultural stereotype about the way that Asian families comport themselves emotionally, preferring expressions of affection that are restrained or go entirely unspoken. But Wang’s generosity as a storyteller draws in viewers who might immediately balk at the prospect of keeping Nai Nai’s diagnosis a secret by providing a well-rounded and empathetic view of this family both culturally and individually, as they struggle over the course of the film with the philosophical complexities between their own longstanding traditions and the opportunities of an evolving society that may be ignorant or opposed to them.
For example, both Billi’s father Haiyan and his brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) moved away from Nai Nai decades earlier, in order to seek better lives for themselves and their children. They both struggle to honor this request to lie to their mother - drinking to excess and explaining away moments of emotional vulnerability as happiness or fatigue - but accept the obligation as a means to extend her life, even as they attempt to accept the cultural differences in the goals and ambitions of their own children - particularly in Billi’s case, a struggling writer who lives above a laundromat but has to go home to wash clothes. They subsequently draw the rest of the family into this lie, resulting in some close calls when Nai Nai develops a persistent cough, and later, becomes skeptical of the doctor’s insistence that the lesions on her lungs are merely “benign shadows.”
Billi, raised mostly in the U.S., has a different point of view, and it’s one that many will share as the movie opens. But the thread of compassion that runs through both Billi’s own desire to spend time with Nai Nai and for her to respect her family’s wishes begins to make a more convincing argument for not saying anything, especially as Nai Nai, indefatigable even as she succumbs to some of her minor symptoms, trucks forward with plans for the sham wedding with the vigor and excitement of a person half her age. Whether you’re “superstitious” or not about the psychological impact of being diagnosed with a terminal illness, the film at least makes you begin to understand how Nai Nai learning the truth might slow her down, even - or perhaps especially - in the context of the grandmother’s own fictions perpetrated against her late husband. And in the meantime, the rest of the characters wrestle so much with the emotional impact of this news that sparing her that emotional weight increasingly feels like a kindness.
In her previous movie roles, Awkwafina has often played a bit of a wild card, which is what makes her centered performance - even in her character’s uncertainties - feel like such a delightful surprise. She is tremendously gifted and completely believable as Billi, attempting to persuade her family to be honest but never doing so from a selfish or self-righteous point of view; when she explains her feelings about an earlier loss - and the challenges of accepting her parents’ goals for her without ever learning what drove those choices - it provides a devastating but completely understandable drive for her to experience, and share, the clarity and catharsis she wasn’t able to have before. Meanwhile, Zhao Shuzhen plays the irresistible, irrepressible Nai Nai, whose light and energy has kept the family together - and continues to do so as they fall apart around her for reasons they cannot share. The movie marks her debut as an actor, and it’s the kind of role that welcomes the audience not just to her as a performer, but the movie that revolves around her character.
There are certainly a number of scenes that will wring tears from viewers - especially if they’ve ever experienced this kind of loss, or had to say goodbye to a loved one without knowing if they would ever see them again. But the movie’s earnestness in suggesting there can be something good about communicating love through unspoken gestures manages to infect the audience in a way I wasn’t expecting, encouraging a kind of restraint that mirrors what the characters are going through. But as a portrait of family solidarity, and a tribute to the parents and loved ones who hold families together even when they spread out across the country and the globe, The Farewell is a remarkable, powerful achievement. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to call your grandmother afterward and just thank her for being her, but also one that lets you know you’re doing that already if it makes you think of her, but she’s no longer around.