"Lulu Wang is undoubtedly skilful at weaving cross-cultural observations into the fabric of her story"twitter/lexdistance

Content Note: This article contains discussion of cancer, death and family problems.

“Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die. It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.”

The Farewell (2019) depicts how a Chinese family builds a wall of lies to protect their dying grandma from this fear. After their Nai Nai (grandma) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, the family decides to keep the news hidden from her. They have even arranged a fake wedding to reunite the family around Nai Nai before she passes away.

As the film’s protagonist, Chinese American writer Billi, travels from New York to China for this, she struggles between the belief that her grandma has the right to know and the enormous family pressure to keep the secret.

It is amazing how director Lulu Wang is able to discuss the imminence of death with a light, humorous touch. This is illustrated perfectly when Nai Nai teaches Billi her pseudo-Tai Chi. After Nai Nai pats on Billi’s back to instruct her how to ‘clear out all the bad toxins’, Billi gently pats her back with a doting smile. While it fills one’s heart with joy, we are reminded yet again of Nai Nai’s predicted death, as she brags to Billi ‘this is the reason why I’m so healthy at my age’.

Billi’s fading smile says more than a million lines: at that moment, we all share Billi’s guilt for keeping Nai Nai in the dark. But more importantly, we suddenly understand why the family is so unwilling to risk shattering Nai Nai’s positivity.

This idealised past family-oriented society does not exist in real life

The Farewell is full of such nuanced and amusing moments. Growing up in China, these intricate details remind me of many real-life events that have taken place at home. One of the main worries of my grandparents’ generation is whether we can find a suitable partner to take care of us. I can’t even count how many times my grandparents have tried to ship some random person with my cousin as soon as he turned 18. So, when Nai Nai probes her handsome doctor’s marital status, I was very impressed by The Farewell’s ability to show Nai Nai’s caring for Billi in such a subtle and authentically Chinese way. As a Chinese American herself, Lulu Wang is undoubtedly skilful at weaving cross-cultural observations into the fabric of her story.

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Unfortunately, Wang did not attempt to be more than an observer. Rosy clips of Nai Nai were bizarrely cut together with sarcastic portrayals of the modernising China. Take the shot of someone having a lonesome smoke under his lion-dance costume, or the mass-produced Confucius statues staring confusedly at a modern funeral. These might work well in a photography exhibition, but they seem odd in a movie that has no interest in exploring them in depth. The Farewell only lingers on them for a few seconds, which just leaves the audience bemused and somewhat uncomfortable.

Ultimately, the careless contrast between Nai Nai’s indefinite grace and China’s awkward modernity seems to push a dangerous conclusion – that the traditional, family-oriented China is much warmer and happier. Nowhere is this better shown than on Billi’s disillusioned face as she finds out skyscrapers have replaced Nai Nai’s old house.

It seems to me that this is not a film about Chinese-American cultural clashes. Rather, it shows Billi’s longingness for Nai Nai’s loving old China, in contrast to the lonesome, capitalist society represented by New York and the modern China.

The careless contrast between Nai Nai’s grace and modern China seems to push a dangerously reductive conclusion

However, this idealised family-oriented society does not exist in real life. A few months ago, my own (now late) grandpa was diagnosed with cancer. My family, just like Billi’s, decided to keep him in the dark. It didn’t save him, yet the lying continues as the news of him passing away is kept from my great grandma. As someone who has experienced the burden of what we call ‘big family’ in Chinese, I can say that it is actually built on an enormous number of sacrifices and pains. Of course, I have no right to demand that The Farewell matches my personal experience. But it is also true that even the film itself cannot completely ignore the darker side of the lies.


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Hao Hao, Billi’s cousin and the groom of the fake marriage, is shown bursting into tears at the end of the wedding. How much pressure he must have been under to stage this wedding? Could his relationship with his girlfriend continue after all these unpleasant intrusions? The Farewell has no answer, and it doesn’t care.

Throughout the film, Hao Hao and his girlfriend Aiko hardly speak a word. They are just unimportant puppets used to make Nai Nai’s happy ending possible. Therefore, unlike Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) which also draws on the concept of a fake wedding, The Farewell only scratches the surface of Chinese family life.

So, although I sincerely enjoyed the wonderful details, lovely sense of humour and Nai Nai’s affectionate smile, I’m afraid The Farewell is a film that I won’t go back to.

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