Movie Review: The Farewell (2019)
The Chinese title is more direct (《别告诉他》or “Don’t Tell Her”), which is a little ironic since the point of the movie is a particularly Chinese lack of directness; of keeping an unpleasant truth from a beloved family member.
I’ve encountered this before, by the way. Not just in Taiwan when I lived there (1988-90) but in film. There’s a 1989 Jackie Chan movie called “Mr. Canton and Lady Rose,” in which several friendly gangsters get involved in an elaborate scheme to pass off a poor flower lady as a rich Cantonese woman for the benefit of her daughter's rich, prospective in-laws. I kept waiting for the in-laws to find out, and for everyone to find out how it didn’t matter since we’re all the same, blah blah blah, as it would be in a Hollywood movie. Except the in-laws never find out; the subterfuge is never revealed. Because in China, Face is more important than Truth.
The attempt to keep the truth hidden in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” is more personal.
Early on, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the grandmother of a large, extended brood, is talking on the phone to her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in New York, while Nai Nai is visiting her doctor in Changchun in northern China. She’s having tests to see if the spots on her lungs are what the doctors fear. And they are: She has cancer. But the doctors don’t tell her; they tell her younger sister, (Lu Hong), who tells everyone else in the family. That’s the Chinese way. They keep it hidden; they don’t want Nai Nai to know she only has months to live.
Instead, the family moves up the wedding of grandson Haohao (Chen Han) to his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), so they all have an excuse to descend on Changchun and say their last goodbyes without actually saying goodbye.
What I love? In that moment before the CAT scan, both Billi and Nai Nai are doing exactly what the family will do for the rest of the movie. Nai Nai pretends she’s at home rather than the hospital, since, one assumes, she doesn’t want to worry Billi. At the same time, she tells Billi to wear a cap in New York (because it’s cold) and no earrings (because they’ll steal them right off you, necessitating surgery), and Billi says she’s wearing a cap (when he isn’t), and isn’t wearing earrings (when she is).
Oh, and the Guggenheim that Billi, a would-be writer, is up for? She doesn’t get it but pretends it’s still pending.
The tension for most of the movie is whether Billi, who’s lived in New York since she was 6 and is more Westernized than the rest of the family, will be the one to drop the bomb. Her parents are so worried about this they don’t invite her along. She shows up on her own—as the family is sitting down to dinner.
Much of the movie revolves around food and conversation and cultural differences. Billi’s mom, Jian (Diana Lin), gets into it with a Chinese in-law, who, though she’s sending her son to America to study, brags about how easy it is to become a millionaire in China. The family visits Nai Nai’s husband’s grave, bringing him food, and participating in the ritual burning of paper items in the shape of, for example, smart phones and TV sets, which he will then get to use in the afterlife. (I used to see such burnings all the time in Taipei.) Nai Nai argues over whether lobster or crab will be served at the wedding. She argues that three months is too short a courtship for Haohao and Aiko, and might start tongues wagging. Why don’t they tell everyone six months? How about a year?
Awkwafina is the big name here, as well as Tzi Ma who plays her father (he’s been in everything from “Rush Hour” to “The Arrival” to “VEEP”), but it’s first-timer Zhao as Nai Nai who steals the show. She’s feisty (doing her morning taichi exercises with loud hais to dispel evil spirits) and a little mean (calling Aoki stupid because the girl doesn’t speak Chinese) but she never seems mean. She just seems set in her ways and protective of her clan. Something about her feels so authentic.
Probably because she is. “The Farwell” is based on a true story, or, as the movie tells us, “an actual lie.” Writer-director LuLu Wang went through the same experience with her own Nai Nai a few years ago. The twist, which we find out in the end, is that her real Nai Nai is still alive. It’s six years later, and we get footage of her doing tai chi. Even better, she never found out about the cancer. She still doesn’t know. One wonders if the Chinese don’t have something with this “not knowing you’re going to die” thing. It’s like Wile E. Coyote staying in midair as along as he doesn’t know he’s in midair; it’s the knowledge that makes him fall.
Thoughts on the birds? A bird lands in Billi’s apartment in New York, and then in her hotel room in Changchun; she stares in silence at both. Then at the end, weighed down with the knowledge of Nai Nai’s impending death—Awkwafina is slouched like a teenager for half the movie—she suddenly takes up Nai Nai’s spirit-dispensing shout on the streets of New York and the birds goes flying into the air.
So are the birds the evil spirits? Or are they the trapped thing inside Billi? For that matter, does the fictional Nai Nai live simply because the real one did/does? One assumes, but we never really find out.
Bigger point: go. 去看看巴。This is a small gem of a movie that is funny, heartfelt, poignant. The cultural absurdities are specifically Chinese but the family absurdities are wholly universal. I love the final scene in China: Billi in the cab with her parents being taken to the airport, and watching her Nai Nai through the rear window waving and getting smaller and smaller. That’s all of us, eventually.