Lulu Wang’s personal feature focuses on identity, family ties, and “good” lies
The statement “Based on an actual lie” flies across the screen at the start of The Farewell, the Sundance favorite opening in Austin in July 2019. Lulu Wang based her second feature on her experience with a family member’s cancer diagnosis. Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s 8) is Billi, a young artist brought to the States as a child by her Chinese immigrant parents. She finds out from her parents that her father’s mom, her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), is terminally ill; the family is gathering in China under the pretense of a cousin’s wedding to say their goodbyes. But no one has told Nai Nai the true state of her health.
Billi questions such traditions, believing it unfair to her grandmother. After Nai Nai has an episode, Billi asks an English-speaking doctor whether they are right to keep it from her. “It’s a good lie,” he assures her. The family members bicker among themselves, but their love and respect for Nai Nai is never in doubt. Although Billi’s family moved to New York and her uncle’s family moved to Japan, the family connections remain strong (as evidenced in the many meal scenes).
“You don’t look like an American,” a hotel clerk comments to Billi, in Mandarin. Her lack of fluency in the language makes her feel like an outsider in her family’s country, yet in a tense conversation with her mother, Billi reflects on a childhood of feeling excluded after their move to the US. As the young woman walks alone through street shots bathed in colors, Wang illustrates Billi’s sense of separation and loss.
Zhao is charming as Nai Nai, who retains a quick wit and a sense of independence as her health declines. Her hacking cough is so like what I remember of my Grandpa’s the last time I saw him that I was immediately brought to tears upon hearing it. Such a small thing to inspire a deep connection with the viewer; if I hadn’t already been won over by Wang’s film, that alone might have done it.
Wang’s touch is ever present, from the casting of her own great-aunt as Nai Nai’s sister to the director’s piano accompaniment for an aria sung during the wedding party. The subject and story are obviously close to her heart in this personal film. Wang captures the fragility of the situation — both Nai Nai’s health and the family’s attempts to keep her from knowing — as well as the heartbreak that is to come. There’s a beautiful wistfulness to The Farewell, which is a loving ode to a matriarch, and the guilt and responsibility she inspires in her descendants.