Based on an actual lie…
That is the opening text of The Farewell, and while the description is accurate, the irony is that the film, based on real-life experiences of writer and director Lulu Wang, contains some universal and powerful truths. Family coming together amidst crisis, the ways we mourn, and how we can find comfort in one another and alleviating the burdens of a loved one.
This is all revealed through the point of view of Billi (Akwafina, Crazy Rich Asians), a young Chinese-American woman who is coping with the knowledge that her grandmother, Nai Nai, (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and does not have long to live.
QUICK ASIDE. “Nai Nai” is a Mandarin term for paternal grandmothers. Neat, huh? END OF ASIDE.
She is astonished to learn that her father (Tzi Ma) and uncle (Jiang Yongbo) have decided to keep the news from Nai Nai. Everyone in the family, even the doctor, is in on the conspiracy.
Billi and the Western audiences following her: Wait, what?!
Well, in China, this is common practice and culturally accepted. But still, Billi is understandably torn.
And so a lie is concocted so the family can spend one last big moment with Nai Nai. Billi’s cousin, who lives in Japan, will marry his girlfriend and the (fake) wedding will be held in China. Billi and her immediate family fly half a world away as she reconnects and grapples with the implications of what is happening.
Awkwafina, mostly known for her over the top comedic roles, gives a restrained and magnetic performance here and enjoys a warm chemistry with Shuzhen, who steals the film as Nai Nai. Anyone with a grandmother like her, and I suspect there are many, will easily find themselves smiling throughout.
The Farewell grabs the viewer by the heart strings and does it without wallowing deeply in over-sentimentality and despite its heavy subject matter, still manages to mine moments of levity with nary a wacky stereotype or lazy cliché to be found. It is undeniably one of 2019’s best.
Part of a Whole
Billi engages in a fascinating conversation with her family around the dinner table about the differences between America and China. Naturally, in a tradition that spans families across all cultural divides, an argument ensues. Billi, having been born in the East, but now living in the West, is caught in the middle.
It later spills over into this exchange…
Billi: [frustrated] Are you going to tell Nai Nai? Haiyan: I can't, Billi. I won't go against my family. Uncle Haibin: Billi, there are things you misunderstand. You guys moved to the West long ago. 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. You want to tell Nai Nai the truth, because you're afraid to take the responsibility for her. Because it's too big of a burden. If you tell her, then you don't have to feel guilty. We're not telling Nai Nai because it's our duty to carry this emotional burden for her.
In other words, in the East, life isn’t just experienced on an individual level. To Haiyan and Haibin, telling their mother she is dying would be considered a shameful act, as it would represent an unwillingness to carry the burden of that knowledge so that she may live life more fully.
To Billi’s credit – and the screenwriter’s – no sides are taken here. No one is said to be in the right with the handling of the situation. Cultural differences are approached without judgment.
I am in no way endorsing lying to your family members. But what a beautiful idea, though – doing life in a familial context and helping to carry the burden for one another.
Keep Calm and CARRY (One Another) On
How can we live life as a whole?
(Note: No lying required!)
The first step is just that – a step! As in, stepping outside yourself. Self centeredness can be a burden onto itself. Stop and look around you. What kind of small thing can you do to help a neighbor or family member? For instance, if someone has suffered a loss, offer to take a trip to the grocery store for them. It could be any number of small things.
Help others to help yourself! A recent study has shown that helping others can relieve anxiety and depression.
Carrying each other’s burden. Think about that phrase for a minute. Doesn’t it evoke images of being weighed down by a heavy load? Remember how it feels when you are carrying something any length of distance and someone comes along and takes some of it? It is so freeing! Each of us have our own unique struggles and accompanying baggage. Ask how a friend is doing. And don’t stop there. Listen.
Remember, no one is an island. Simply put, we just weren’t created to live in isolation. So we experience the benefits of community and its reciprocal nature. That means learning to let ourselves be loved. Sometimes that is hard to do, especially with the “pick yourselves up by the bootstraps” attitude that is so pervasive in American culture.
Don’t forget the word of caution offered up two posts ago in our Silver Screen Self Care meditation on Freaky Friday – there can be a danger in taking on someone’s emotions as your own, so practice boundaries!
- Help others to help yourself.
- Ask how a friend is doing.
- Let yourself be loved.
Watch and Listen
The Farewell (2019)
Director: Lulu Wang
Screenwriter: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbow, Gil Perez-Abraham
Scott is a mental health professional, freelance writer, and movie lover. He has a Masters of Divinity degree, which is not nearly as amazing sounding as Masters of the Universe, but it is what it is. It is here at Movies That Move Us where his powers combine! It is not uncommon to find him pretending to open automatic doors using The Force.