Truthfulness and straight-talking are frequently associated with American qualities. From cherry tree confessions to lying as an impeachable offence, the Honest Abes of America spotlight the cultural premium placed on the pure unvarnished truth, or at least the appearance of it. Lies rarely pay off and liars rarely prosper. Lulu Wang’s breathtaking film “The Farewell” presents an alternative.
“The Farewell” warns the viewer with its opening title card that the story is “based on an actual lie,” its clean-cut dark background and white text emphasizing the wordplay doublespeak in sheer visual division. The film opens on blue sky and flowers — only both are unconvincing facsimiles within a painting.
The style — fortune-signifying peonies blooming in aggressive, shiny fuchsia against pale blues, a landscape eschewing realism for symbolism — would be familiar to anyone who is Chinese, or who has been in a Chinese hospital. That is where the story begins.
Nai Nai, the grandmother matriarch of the Changchun-based family, is dying of cancer. And everybody knows it except Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) herself.
The rest of the family has chosen to keep the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai, much to the disbelief and dismay of her granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina). Billi, who immigrated to New York City from China as a child with her parents, is now 30 and struggling to sustain a career as a writer. The film follows her return to China, where her family has hatched an elaborate plot: a grandiose fake wedding serving as an excuse to corral family members to see Nai Nai one last time.
The ensuing reunion becomes pure theater: Family members feign smiles to mask their sadness, stage a heist to prevent Nai Nai from seeing her true test results and spend exuberantly on the climactic wedding ceremony before finally saying goodbye. Awkwafina, of “Crazy Rich Asians” fame, gives a spirited, nuanced portrayal of Billi’s internal struggles with grief and the lie’s upkeep.
Largely captured in wide-angle shots, the film effectively interrogates the totalizing, moralistic question “Is lying permissible?” by treating it as a microcosm of cultural principles. Whether the answerer is Chinese or American can make all the difference.
In explaining the family’s reasoning, Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) frames the argument as a comical Chinese saying: “When people have cancer, they die.” She clarifies that it’s not the cancer that kills them, but instead the fear and sadness of impending departure. “Isn’t it always better to tell the truth?” Billi fires back during another hospital scene — in English, so that Nai Nai, sitting in front of her, won’t be able to understand.
Much of the film’s tone is established through Billi’s perspective as she repeatedly finds her own views at odds with her family’s choices and explanations. The film does not provide a definitive answer to the question of the morality of lying, but captures the experience of seeing multiple sides of the argument — Chinese and American instead of one or the other.
The theme of dual narratives courses through the film’s bilingual dialogue. Conversations between the family members often occur entirely in Chinese, and the expat younger generations’ lack of fluency in the language becomes a point of awkwardness and tension at the dinner table. Creative choices in the translation of English subtitles add sparkling points of levity and insight. In one scene, the whole family gears up to take a photo, and the captions’ literal translation of “Say Eggplant!” “Eggplant!” rather than the more idiomatic “Cheese!” lend the film’s humor a kaleidoscopic effect.
Wang’s achievement in part lies in the film’s lack of narrative insularity when it comes to culturally specific character behaviors — some phrases are explained or clearly evident in meaning, and others are given less context. “Eggplant,” among many other such moments within the film, is a joke that both recognizes ridiculousness in cultural idiosyncrasies and stays true to them.
“The Farewell” will be funnier to some than to others. It will be more relatable to some than to others. That is OK. Like the oxymoronic actual lie, the film does not seek to have one perspective declare victory over another, but to hold them both in parallel tension.
Wang has commented on the autobiographical nature of the story — with her own grandmother in the position of Nai Nai, once — and the ending title cards confess as much. The true lie, then, blurs the distinction between movie and reality, between director and actress, in a palindromic effect. The actual lie and the lying truth can coexist.
The film’s Chinese title, with imperative, honest directness, is “Bie gao su ta”: “Don’t tell her.” The two first characters of the phrase, when reversed, become “gao bie” — goodbye.