“The Farewell,” which first premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, kicked off BAMcinemaFest on Wednesday, June 13th.
I visited China last February to celebrate the Lunar New Year with my extended family. My parents immigrated to the United States before I was born and when my brother was less than a year old. I don’t know much about what that was like except that it was hard. The details are missing. When I ask my parents, they’re more likely to try to feed me than answer my questions.
A lifetime of learning not to bother asking means I don’t know much about the personal lives of my extended family. It’s not until we return to America that my mom mentions one of my cousins was forced into marriage by a suicidal woman, or that this relationship or that one is falling apart at the seams. I ask why she didn’t tell me. She asks why she would tell me.
This brings us to the lie at the center of Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature film, “The Farewell.” Per the tagline, it is “based on a real lie” from Wang’s life. The film follows Billi (Awkwafina), a 30-something struggling writer in New York whose parents immigrated to America when she was a child. She finds out her grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), or “Nai Nai” in Chinese pinyin, has terminal cancer. Billi’s parents and other relatives are traveling to China to see her one last time under the guise of a cousin’s fictitious wedding banquet. Billi isn’t invited, or even told about the illness until she pries out the truth, because her parents fear she will not be able to keep the secret. Despite her uncertain finances, Billi decides to go anyway and buys a plane ticket.
The film demonstrates the value of authentic storytelling and diverse perspectives in front of and behind the camera. Awkwafina in her first dramatic lead role gives a sincere and emotional performance that launches her potential far beyond the comedic roles she’s known for. It’s also clear that Wang drew much of her inspiration for the characters and dialogue directly from her own family. Her real-life great aunt who started the lie about Wang’s Nai Nai stars in the movie as Billi’s great-aunt.
Wang’s perspective and light touch bring the characters to life. The dialogue between Billi and her extended family is hilarious and resonant, and at times feel like it’s pulled directly from my own memories of visiting family in China. It can be difficult to understand the importance of representation until you finally see it on screen for the first time, and realize that as hard as you’ve tried to squint at the screen to make other people’s stories fit, you’ve never seen yourself invested in or respectfully performed.
That representation goes beyond dialogue to the themes at the heart of “The Farewell.” At first glance the decision not to tell Nai Nai about her illness feels dishonest, and by definition, it is. But Wang pushes the question deeper than that, beyond a standard East vs West clash between communalism and individualism, into something more complex and universal. Perhaps there is a kind of indignity in being unaware of your fate while your family makes sad eyes at you. But what is dignity compared to the burden of knowing you probably won’t live to see your granddaughter get married, or even until your next birthday? And if your family can preserve your contentedness and comfort before the inevitable, is it so wrong to lie? If they can choose to carry that weight collectively, could it even be right to do so?
Unanswerable questions about the human heart are what good movies are made of, and “The Farewell” is full of them. If I had to answer the main conflict – tell Nai Nai or preserve her peace of mind – I defer to Billi’s words when she’s asked about whether America or China is better: “It’s just different.”