There are good lies, bad lies and complicated lies that firmly plant themselves somewhere in the middle. It is the latter that Billi (Awkwafina) and her family wrestle with in Lulu Wang’s enthralling and immensely relatable film The Farewell.
When Billi’s family learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) has been diagnosed terminal lung cancer, they make decision to keep it a secret from the ailing matriarch. In fact, her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), are reluctant to even tell Billi for fear that she will spill the beans to Nai Nai, as the two are extremely close. However, when the rest of the family decides to stage a rushed wedding for her cousin, so they have an excuse to visit Nai Nai one last time, Billi will not let anything stand between her and her grandmother.
Secretly leaving Brooklyn to fly back to Changchun, where she was born, Billi’s arrival comes as a shock to the whole family. With the wedding a mere three days away, and the ruse getting more elaborate by the minute, Billi’s insistence that Nai Nai should know the truth threatens to blow the whole sham apart.
Based on a similar situation in Wang’s own life, it is easy to expect The Farewell to be a screwball comedy considering its premise. However, the humour in the film is far more nuanced. What Wang constructs is a film that packs an emotional punch one minute and has you laughing the next. She manages to take a powerful scene, take for example the grief filled speech Billi’s uncle gives at the wedding, and still finds genuine humour in the awkwardness of the moment.
This delicate blend of humour and drama feels natural thanks in part to the wonderful performances by the ensemble cast. Shuzhen Zhou is a pure delight as the grandmother whose joy of having her family around supersedes her own ailments. The real revelation here though is Awkwafina who shows immense range in the role of Billi. In attempting to be the moral compass for the family, Billi’s face perfectly encapsulates the sorrow and inner moral conflict that consumes her.
It is Billi’s moral dilemma that allows The Farewell to pose several deep questions regarding who the lie ultimately benefits? Often, when it comes to illness and death, we tend to make decisions that ultimately help us cope, but do not always benefit those who are ailing. Wang’s film throws an interesting cultural wrench into this.
The film’s central lie has as much to do with culture and mythology as it does with guilt. As one character so poignantly states, in Chinese culture, the fear associated with cancer is believed to be deadlier than the ailment itself. Though Billi has been raised to believe honesty is always the best policy, Wang shows that life is never clear-cut.
The Farewell does not present easy answers to the thought-provoking questions it raises. This allows the film to feel both universal and intimate at the same time. It is hard not to think of our own loved ones, past and present, when observing this heartwarming film. The Farewell finds strength in sadness and reminds us that familial bonds remain a part of us long after our loved ones are gone.