The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, is based on an actual lie. Awkwafina plays Billi, the granddaughter who struggles whether to tell her grandmother about a fatal cancer diagnosis. The family agrees to an elaborate fake wedding so relatives will have a reason to visit. Everyone agrees to maintain the ruse, and the lie, so Nai Nai will enjoy what time she has left. Shuzhen Zhao plays Nai Nai, who lives in China and doesn’t speak English. Most of the film is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Awkwafina and Zhao carry the film through their chemistry and delightful interactions. Billi doesn’t visit often, so Nai Nai wastes no time and gives advice on men, career, and in one of the funniest sequences, exercise. These scenes are neither absurd nor maudlin, but poignant, thanks to Wang’s script and muted direction. Wang chooses complex, honest feelings and interactions in her script and direction without over-relying on comedic or tragic tropes. She uses long shots and extended takes, which gives the actors time to connect and respond. Some viewers may find that it’s focusing on emotions instead of advancing the plot and that long takes slow the film down but this reviewer disagrees. The film is an authentic family portrait that transcends culture due to Wang’s process.
I wondered whether or not Nai Nai knew-but-didn’t-know about her diagnosis. As a member of the generation that believes “When people get cancer, they die. It’s not cancer that kills them — it’s the fear,” was she aware on some level that her family loves her enough to take on the worry and agony of a terminal diagnosis? She’s got symptoms. She visits the doctor and gets tests done. And suddenly her grandson is getting married and all the far-flung relatives are visiting. This reviewer does not know. Wang gave no indication of that in the film.
In a way, not telling Nai Nai was the kind thing to do. She can still walk up her fifth-floor walk-up. She cooks, she complains about her roommate, she continues her role as Matriarch of her family, all because she knows no different. I visited my mother, who has Alzheimer’s and has live-in caregivers last month and while I was there I wondered if she’d be happier if she knew no different. She focuses on what she cannot do any longer. She reminds herself that she has Alzheimer’s. She tries to make sense of a world that makes no sense. She draws elaborate conclusions about what she sees. I agree with her perspectives and opinions unless they’re a risk to her health or safety. All women on TV wear wigs, she told me whenever we watched TV, even the US Women’s National Soccer Team.
Many families keep secrets and tell lies with the goal to prevent pain. Some lies are harmless, like my parents telling us that they took our poorly basset hound, Beauregard, to a farm in upstate New York because he would not survive an upcoming interstate move. (Yes, really. And we believed them! I was 12.) Some lies hurt, like the truth behind a family member’s absence. The Farewell is a lie that doesn’t hurt Nai Nai. Everyone else within her family carries the emotional burden of her diagnosis for her.