In the past decade or so, film critics have been pressured to put a “spoiler alert” before sharing anything that might potentially undermine people’s enjoyment of a movie. But how are people supposed to treat things that might be viewed as ”spoilers” in real life? If you knew something that could potentially ruin the rest of someone’s time on Earth — like, say, that they had Stage IV lung cancer and less than three months to live — would you be doing them a favor by keeping that information secret? Wouldn’t they want to know?
Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” begins with the words “Based on an actual lie,” which is a pretty funny way to present a true story about how the Chinese American filmmaker’s family decided to spare their grandmother a terminal diagnosis. They don’t want to spoil the limited time she has left, and so they conspire to carry on as if everything’s normal — except that each of them is saddened by the news, and so they engineer a plan to throw a fake wedding celebration for one of her grandsons in China, allowing everyone to say their goodbyes together. And so, what began as a small lie — “a good lie,” in the doctor’s words — snowballs into a much more elaborate deception.
Wang has publicly shared a version of this story before, on NPR’s “This American Life” podcast, and here, she puts a tragicomic spin on it, casting Awkwafina (operating at a quarter her potential wattage) as a version of herself: a young woman caught between countries who doesn’t seem to identify with American culture but also doesn’t understand — or at least agree with — the Chinese custom of protecting relatives from realizing when they’re ill. Awkwafina, as we know, is the vivacious “Crazy Rich Asians” co-star who nearly stole the show, and one hopes that the success of that film could spell a certain commercial interest in “The Farewell,” even if it’s destined to earn just a fraction of the audience.
It practically goes without saying that all families must grapple with versions of these questions when it comes to the illness and loss of loved ones, and what makes “The Farewell” so effective is that in delving into such a specific case, the film invites audiences to reflect on the passing of relatives close to them. Here, no one wants to trouble Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), but that’s hardly the only lie-by-omission in the air. Billi (Awkwafina) knows that she’s been turned down for a Guggenheim Fellowship but keeps that news to herself. And when she visits her parents in New York City, they initially attempt to hide Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her as well. It’s only because Billi senses that something’s wrong and demands an explanation — a forceful attempt to cut past the charade of propriety, which exists to protect other people’s feelings.
Even then, her mom (Diana Lin) and dad (Tzi Ma) initially advise that she stay behind. “You can’t hide your emotions,” they warn — and they’re right. When Billi arrives up at Nai Nai’s unannounced (after charging the flight to her already precarious credit cards), her facial expression looks like she’s shown up for a funeral, not a wedding — which was supposed to be her cover story. Then again, Nai Nai would have to be a pretty terrible poker player not to see through all the puffy-faced frowns at her table, and yet, she goes along with the charade.
Alternating between situational melancholy and wryly comedic observations, Wang’s script spends plenty of time weighing the ethics of the family’s collective deception, but never overtly questions whether Nai Nai knows quite how sick she is. And yet, having done the same thing to her late husband (she now shares her home with an elderly man, Mr. Li, who keeps his distance during the family’s visit), there’s a high likelihood that “the lie” in question is more a case of willful ignorance — the way spouses might overlook clues of their partner’s infidelities, or old friends tactfully forget to mention the “work” you’ve had done. For all involved, the sham wedding ceremony serves to deflect from the depressing situation at hand while giving everyone the kind of closure they need — including Nai Nai, who interrupts an otherwise serious hospital visit to try matchmaking between Billi and her bilingual young doctor.
However universal its basic premise, as a window into another culture — or, for those with Chinese roots, a reflection of one’s own — “The Farewell” presents without necessarily explaining behaviors that aren’t always intuitive. As a result, mileage will vary according to viewers’ personal frame of reference. First- and second-generation immigrant stand-ups love to riff on much of the behavior seen here, which may help white audiences navigate some of the nuances, like what it means to be called “skinny” by one’s elders or Nai Nai’s trust in tai chi and vitamins over modern medicine.
But “The Farewell” doesn’t aim for the kind of big laughs a film such as “The Big Sick” strives to inspire, not does it lean quite so heavily into its more tear-jerky elements. Frankly, there are a hundred ways that Wang could have spun this into a more broadly appealing mainstream comedy, and yet she prefers to play it closer in tone to an independent drama like Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” — which also involved staging a fake nuptial feast in order to keep relatives in the dark, albeit for far different reasons.
Ultimately, it’s a smart move to keep things understated, easing us along with funny situations, while subtly weaving a second kind of sadness underneath: Ever so slowly, Wang allows us to realize that Billi’s visit is about more than just saying goodbye to her grandmother; it’s also a chance to reconnect with the China she left behind at age 3, the fond but hazy memory of which she’s been clinging to all this time, never entirely letting herself acclimate to her new home in America. One could read the final scenes as a double farewell — to a woman she loves and a country that has been keeping a kind of secret from her as well: that it’s not as perfect as she remembered it.