The Lies that Bind
The Farewell shines a light into the emotional darkness of filial piety
Lulu Wang’s second feature is a family film. As the opening title card proclaims, The Farewell is “Based On An Actual Lie,” when the Wang family chose not to disclose to their matriarch, Nai Nai, that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Following the title card is a fictional Nai Nai on the phone as she trades little white lies with her granddaughter Billi.
Awkwafina as Billi sharpens the actress’s drama toolkit beyond the comedy rapping and sidekicking that skyrocketed her career in last summer’s Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Where her prior roles demanded of her an appropriative Asian pantomime in the tradition of a Mr. Yunioshi or a more modern Mr. Chow, Awkwafina in The Farewell serves as the moral compass in the tale’s culture clash between East and West. Billi is the last of her family to hear about Nai Nai’s diagnosis when she learns yet another lie: that the family will host a fake wedding for her cousin Hao Hao in China to be with their matriarch one last time. The family asks that Billi remain in New York because she’s too American, too emotional, which would give way to the truth they strive at great lengths to conceal.
The family believes the lie will keep Nai Nai from worrying to her death. Wang lifts the veil to reveal the longstanding intent behind every culturally-specific Asian lie: to shield from the unproductive impediment of negative emotions.
Avoidance is why Billi tells her father she has yet to hear about a Guggenheim fellowship which she’s already been denied. It is also why Billi’s mother tells her that Chinese families often hire actors to cry at funerals when the family members cannot. At best, lying to Nai Nai is tradition. For the past 25 years of Nai Nai’s life, both of her children have lived in foreign countries, and they likely will not be with her when she dies.
At worst, the lie is a red herring, distracting the family from the ugliness of reflection.
At the movie’s turning point, Billi breaks down with the kind of gut-wrenching calm and sadness that can only accompany the coldest of truths. She reminds her family how painful their lies were for her as a child when they deprived her from emotionally processing a new life in the U.S. and again when she misses the death of her grandfather (who was also lied to about his terminal cancer). Billi’s catharsis is the first domino to fall, giving way to a series of honest outbursts at the most dutiful of all Asian duties - a family wedding. Wang, who also wrote the screenplay, balances the two-ton weight of an Asian family facing death with a slurry of humorous moments, Awkwafina’s astute comedic timing leading the way.
By story’s end, the delicate balance between funny and tragic, warm and cold, moves the family to understand how lying will not prevent them from the grief they will feel. It is the burden only Billi can bear: applying the emotional expectations of the Western culture while embracing the somber Eastern way that still dictates the conduct of everyone she loves. For many audiences who may only comprehend either the Eastern or the Western perspective, The Farewell expresses the painful cost of having to choose between them.
Written by Minh Ha