The Lies & Subtext of Familial Affection in ‘The Farewell’

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(2019—Director: Lulu Wang)

— by Renard N. Bansale

Low ★★★★
(out of 5 stars)

“Chinese people have saying: ‘When people get cancer, they die.’ It’s not the cancer that kills them. It’s the fear.” — Mother Jian (Diana Lin) to daughter Billi (Awkwafina)

Potential spoilers below

Truth: Mind conforming to reality, grasping that what is, is, and what is not, is not.

To Jean-Luc Godard, photography is truth, which would make cinema “truth twenty-four times per second.” To Brian De Palma, however, “film lies twenty-four times a second.” Todd Haynes would agree with De Palma, pointing out how every frame and cinematic language used therein are all artistic choices.

In her sophomore feature The Farewell, writer-director Lulu Wang straddles the line wonderfully between truth and deception. “Based on an Actual Lie” isn’t merely a tongue-in-cheek tagline and opening title for The Farewell. Ms. Wang is actually dramatizing, in part, the health scare of her real-life paternal grandmother/“Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhou). Ms. Wang depicts herself in the form of the timid, slouching, and gray shirt-wearing Awkwafina. Ms. Wang even casts her own real-life “Little” Nai Nai, Hong Lu, as herself. The Farewell is, without a doubt, a surrogate family affair for Ms. Wang—delicate, yet deeply felt and steeped in the East Asian culture it presents.

Much of the authentic emotion abundant in The Farewell stems from the cultural discourse Ms. Wang lets flow freely in the character dialogue. One scene sees Billi’s Uncle Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) escorting her to a nearby hotel, where the rest of the family will sleep to avoid exposing the deception. His stoic, robot-like reminders to keep the lie going are met with Billi’s many exasperated replies of “I know” (Critic’s Note: a response considered disrespectful in my culture). The awkward update on Billi’s stalled writing career leads to a tense discussion led by her mother Jian (Diane Lin) and another aunt on how international parents dispatch their children to higher learning and other opportunities in the United States. Yet despite the grandeur of living and working abroad, the parents still want their children at home.

Perhaps the most poignant of these scenes is when Billi assists her mother and soon-to-be-married cousin Haohao (Han Chen) in scouring the floor for the earring of Haohao’s Japanese fiancée Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). As this scene progresses, Billi reveals that she wants to stay longer in China, to which her mother expresses disappointment at how Billi doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing. At this, Billi finally confesses how their family’s move to the United States when she was just three years old cut ties with the loving community of their heritage. The search of Billi’s family for a better opportunity in the States put them at an emotional disadvantage, on top of a financial disadvantage. When Nai Nai gave the same “good lie” treatment to her ailing husband, Billi was pressed to continue school while her parents attended her grandfather’s funeral, denying Billi her one chance at saying goodbye after having last seen her grandfather before their move to the States.

This long-held and overflowing frustration is anticipated in an earlier scene: The family visits her grandfather’s tombstone, amusingly scramble in setting their material offerings to leave on his grave, and nearly get dizzy from bowing their heads over a dozen times for various intentions. The comedy of lighting cigarettes to leave on his gravesite (“Didn’t he quit?” “He quit just before he died.” “Aw, let the man smoke!”) sets up a stirring moment that follows the earring scene: Billi drifts in and out of sleep the night before Haohao’s wedding, and envisions her late grandfather, smoking by her open hotel room window. Blink. He’s gone, much like how he just disappeared when younger Billi found out he had died without having been told of his sickness. Yet the cigarette smoke lingers.

A few nights before the wedding, Billi encounters her father (Tzi Ma) and uncle smoking near an open hotel window—younger and older brothers, respectively, hanging out after two-and-a-half decades apart. Knowing that her father had quit, she tries to stop him, but her uncle rebukes her. Again, she asks if the lie should stand. To that, her uncle bestows his sage observation: “You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole. Family. Society.” This observation finds its way into Ms. Wang’s unflashy yet steady direction. In the earlier scenes taking place in the United States, she and d.p. Anna Franquesa Solano lean more subjective than objective. However, once Billi reaches China and especially during the family gathering scenes, they shift to a more objective approach to mirror the collectiveness of the drama from a distance. Still, they do lean into subjectivity at opportune moments: Nai Nai delights at how the family is finally together after so long, as her family’s individual faces droop to the floor. Meanwhile, her similarly-aged apartment mate and sort-of boyfriend Mr. Li (Xuejian Yang) continues eating, oblivious to the sadness surrounding him and all things that don’t concern him in general.

The tricky balance between truth and deception can also be found, lastly, in Alex Weston’s evocative score. Cues like “The Lie” and “Grandma on the Roof” (featuring vocalist Mykal Kilgore) possess a sorrowful power. Elsewhere, the casual and wordless doo-wop of “Pathetique” playfully expresses how the family is walking on egg shells deceiving Nai Nai.

The kidnapper in High & Low, Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 crime thriller, said, “I’d rather be told the cruel truth than be fed gentle lies.” Despite even the best of intentions, no lie can ever be good in itself, no matter the size of the group willing to support it. The truth demands to have its day, especially for those it concerns the most. In that respect, it’s right that the West legally ensures that one with a terminal illness is informed of their condition. For the Wang family though, subtext instead becomes the preferred alternative and mean between the cruel truth and the bald-faced lie. Thus, Nai Nai’s “stupid child” reads like an insult on paper, but is in fact her way of showing affection and love towards Billi, even if Billi happens to know about Nai Nai’s likely fate more than Nai Nai herself. Writer-director Lulu Wang succeeds in exploring all this with resounding sympathy and without coming off as exploiting her own family situation, thus providing a genuine family picture audiences everywhere can cherish for years to come.

Parental Note: The Farewell has been rated…
• PG by the MPAA “for thematic material, brief language, and some smoking”; and
• -1 (“Caution”) by Movieguide for depicting “a pagan approach where the dead are honored and heavy drinking” that “takes place at various times.”
 

Extended Premise: Aspiring Chinese-born and New York City-based writer Billi (Awkwafina) maintains close contact with her Changchun-based grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), whom she calls “Nai Nai” (Mandarin for paternal grandmother). After getting rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship, Billi learns from her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), that Nai Nai will likely succumb to stage four lung cancer within a few months. “Little Nai Nai”, Nai Nai’s younger sister (Hong Lu, writer-director Lulu Wang’s actual “Little Nai Nai”), has been telling Nai Nai that recent test results merely showed benign “findings/shadows”. In addition, the family has convinced Billi’s cousin Haohao (Han Chen) to marry Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), his Japanese girlfriend of three months, to bring together the whole family with Nai Nai for perhaps the last time. Against the wishes of her parents, who fear that Billi will accidentally reveal the truth to Nai Nai, Billi decides to fly to China shortly after the rest of her family have arrived there. For the next three days of wedding banquet prep, Billi must decide whether to defy her family and tell Nai Nai the truth or play along and carry her emotional share of maintaining the lie.

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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