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‘The Farewell’ is a funeral disguised as a wedding

Lulu Wang’s sophomore film “The Farewell” begins with the words “based on an actual lie” –– a catchy tagline to its poignant exploration of family politics and the falsehoods we use to protect our loved ones. Based in part on Wang’s own life, the story unfolds from the perspective of Billi (Awkwafina), a 20-something New Yorker who moved from China to the U.S. at age six. She learns from her parents that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in the Chinese city of Changchun, has developed late-stage lung cancer and has only a few months to live. As is customary in Chinese culture, the diagnosis is kept secret from Nai Nai. Bewildered and guilt-stricken, Billi and the rest of her family head to Changchun under the guise of a wedding to spend one last moment with their beloved matriarch. 

Although Billi was born in China, the wedding in Changchun feels more like a trip to a foreign country than a return to home. Awkwafina performs the role brilliantly with her distinct American gait, perfectly-out-of-place nose ring, and clunky Mandarin skills. The cinematography also captures the country like an admiring tourist, taking it all in for the first time, pausing for moments to people-watch or size up the towering buildings. While in Changchun, Billi lightheartedly entertains certain Chinese traditions, like flapping her arms and singing along to a baijiu-fueled drinking game, slapping her limbs with an enthusiastic “HA!” as part of Nai Nai’s tai-chi regimen, or receiving a cupping treatment that scars her back with grisly circular welts. But ideologically, Billi agonizes over the morality of the deliberate dishonesty toward her grandmother, while her parents and relatives maintain frustratingly austere attitudes toward the situation.

To this end, the movie teases at the differences between patriotic Chinese collectivism and American individualism, simultaneously flaunting and critiquing both. As Billi’s uncle explains, in America “one’s life belongs to oneself,” but in China, one’s life is part of a greater whole. In China, it is customary for doctors to conceal terminal illness diagnoses from patients; doctors instead discuss the prognosis with the family. The family, not the patient, determines how treatment will proceed. At funerals, professional mourners can be hired to grieve and wail in lavish style, and family members maintain connections with deceased loved ones through prayer and gifts of money, food and other afterlife essentials. Ultimately, death and dying are social affairs. Although Billi sees it as Nai Nai’s right to know the truth about her health (to provide the chance to say goodbye), her family contends that lying allows the family members, rather than Nai Nai herself, to bear the emotional burden of the illness. In the words of the family’s doctor, “It’s a good lie.”

Rather than express favoritism for one philosophy over the other, Wang navigates these complex cultural spaces with an even and fair hand, preferring to reconcile, or at the very least articulate, the cultural nuances of life and death in China versus America. It is worth noting, however, that this film arrived in theaters in the midst of political protests in Hong Kong, and although “The Farewell” is not substantively political, all art must be evaluated in the broader context in which it is created. Speaking beyond the scope of the movie, then, Chinese culture prioritizes social responsibility over individualism. But in what ways can a nationalistic government pervert this collectivist ideology (or, in the case of the corrupted American dream, create an illusion of choice) for the purpose of maintaining social stability for the already powerful? Mainland China would like to paint Hong Kong protesters as intent on wreaking indiscriminate havoc, yet they fail to realize that these demonstrators are risking physical and social death for a greater liberatory cause, which is exactly what collectivism asks of them. Similar to how it is Billi’s responsibility to ensure that her grandmother’s final moments of life are free from sorrow and fear of death, the protestors feel a responsibility to provide future generations with a life free from political suppression.

Even without these overtly political layers, Wang’s movie feels full and complete in its melancholic ruminations, especially considering that this follows Awkwafina’s comedic relief roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8.” “The Farewell” portrays vignettes of intimate family moments which provide valuable cultural insight and subtly illuminate the gray moral spaces we create for the sake of love.

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