By sheer dumb luck, as I was driving to see the new movie The Farewell, NPR was interviewing writer/director Lulu Wang. Wang was discussing the whole concept of concealing bad news from loved ones, particularly in China. She’d asked her mother if she would want Lulu to conceal a fatal diagnosis from her. Lulu’s mother said that American law made that impossible. Then apparently Lulu’s mother suggested she’d instead hide a fatal diagnosis from Lulu when the time came.
The comment sounded much better on the radio than I could describe it here.
Anyway, such questions are at the heart of The Farewell.
Chinese-born American Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York City. A struggling writer, she has as close a relationship with her Nai Nai/paternal grandmother. Or, at least, as close as cell conversations can be. But from the first scene, as we see Billi and Nai Nai chat happily, it is worth noting the two pepper their conversations with white lies about their respective lives.
That is, more or less, what the movie is about in a nutshell. Not long after, Billi learns from her parents that Nai Nai is dying. Diagnosed with lung cancer, it is estimated that the old woman has three months to live.
And no one told her.
It seems this is a longstanding Chinese custom Billi is unaware of. The idea is to spare the dying bad news for as long as possible to keep their suffering to a minimum. There’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it. At any rate, Billi’s family is returning to China, ostensibly for her first cousin’s wedding, but in reality to say goodbye to Nai Nai. Billi’s parents initially tell her to stay home since she apparently can’t hide her emotions. She goes anyway.
I really liked this film. Awkwafina anchors a strong cast of Asian actors, most notably the older woman playing Nai Nai. It’s easy to see why the family adores her so much. She’s full of spunk and moxie while living in total ignorance of what she’s really going through. And for all the family keeps telling Billi how bad she is at hiding her feelings, just about every member of her family has a moment or two of nearly breaking save the Japanese woman Billi’s cousin is marrying. That may be due to the fact that she doesn’t speak Chinese. And, to the movie’s credit, that is never used as a source for an easy laugh.
Ultimately, this is a movie about the importance of family. Billi isn’t just upset that her family is lying to Nai Nai. There’s a general aura of secrecy to the entire family. It isn’t just Nai Nai’s health, and this isn’t the first time that someone kept a fatal illness from one of Billi’s relatives. But much of this comes down to differences between Chinese culture and Billy’s own more Western upbringing. She can keep asking why no one tells Nai Nai, but she’ll never really get an answer she likes.
And despite the long faces, the movie plays as a celebration of Nai Nai’s life. She’s just too in-the-dark to know why. You’ll get all the feels from this one. 9 out of 10 hospital set-up attempts.