‘The Farewell’ Reviewed: An Honorable and Honest Deception

It’s not easy saying goodbye. 


Writer-director Lulu Wang confronts this uncomfortable truth, ironically enough, through a series of lies and deceptions in “The Farewell” (A24), her incredibly poignant ode to the shifting nature of family, culture and life itself.


Inspired by Wang’s own family experience (or, “based on an actual lie,” as the opening title card playfully puts it), “The Farewell” follows a Chinese-American family who decides not to tell their grandmother that she’s been diagnosed with lung cancer. Knowing that their Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) only has a few more months to live, the family schedules one last gathering with her back in Changchun, China, under the pretense of an impromptu wedding.


Nai Nai’s granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina, in a wonderfully honest and emotionally rooted performance) expresses criticism for the deception, even as her family explains it to be a common practice for Chinese families. It is soon decided that Billi, who lives in New York City as an aspiring writer, is to stay home, for fear that she will reveal the truth to her grandmother. 


However, Billi ends up flying to Changchun by herself, after the rest of her family arrives there. While Nai Nai busies herself with planning for the faux wedding, Billi and her family clash on whether or not they should keep their lie intact for Nai Nai’s benefit.


This theme of honorable deception, or “good lies,” serves as a constant through-line in the film. The opening shot itself mirrors this idea of blissful ignorance, as Wang focuses her camera on an idyllic valley that is eventually revealed to be a painting in a hospital waiting room — a literal visual deception. The ensuing opening sequence, which takes place before we learn of Nai Nai’s diagnosis, quickly turns into a veritable showcase of falsity, as Billi and Nai Nai unknowingly trade lies and half-truths to each other over the phone.


And yet, there’s a real affection and care that bleeds through these initial white lies (and, indeed, through the deception at the heart of the movie). Whether it’s to make a loved one feel safe and secure, or to prevent unnecessary worrying and hand wringing, the lies that are told in “The Farewell” exist for purely selfless reasons. As Billi’s uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) explains, the purpose for the film’s central lie is to place the burden of mourning on the family — “the collective” — thereby freeing Nai Nai from the pain of having to say goodbye at all. 


“You think one’s life belongs to oneself,” Haibin says. “But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” 


It proves to be quite difficult for Billi to accept this communalist perspective on death and dying (as for the contrast between Western and Eastern philosophy, Wang subtly and gracefully allows the cultural implications to speak for themselves). These cultural differences are readily apparent for American viewers, for whom Billi serves as a screen surrogate, often expressing her frustrations with the lie — even as it becomes clear just how merciful and selfless it really is.


Wang masterfully captures this inner conflict for Billi throughout the movie with simple still compositions that direct visual focus to Awkwafina’s pained facial expressions. Unable to naturally express an emotional release, Wang’s camera remains squarely fixed on Billi, reflecting her enforced emotional rigidity. 


However, there comes a moment of epiphany for Billi, of selfless acceptance of her burden, perfectly captured in a rush of visual and emotional contradiction. The moment occurs late in the film when Nai Nai’s test results are in the process of being delivered — posing a dangerously close threat to unraveling the family’s carefully crafted deceit. 


Taking it upon herself to prolong her grandmother’s happiness, Billi hurries to the hospital to intercept the test results — an act of great sacrifice that Wang depicts via a lateral tracking shot that alludes to the iconic climax from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959). 


The reference is apt because Billi is not too dissimilar to the adolescent Antoine, who, in the ending to the aforementioned film, is running away from a hard truth in his life. The difference here is that Billi is running to the left of the frame — in visual terms, seeking a return, as opposed to an escape. Billi’s pursuit of the lie, of her grandmother’s happiness, is rightly a return to a simpler time, a time of childlike innocence — and even ignorance — that she knows may be the only thing that can really save her Nai Nai.


Billi (Awkwafina, center) and her family in “The Farewell,” directed by Lulu Wang.


Now, all this talk of mourning, death and personal burden isn’t to say that “The Farewell” is a downer. Quite the contrary. As it turns out, “The Farewell” has a real chance of going down as this year’s most genuinely funny and heartwarming film. 


Wang beautifully injects humor into the film’s otherwise somber atmosphere, allowing her characters to interact as a real family. This leads to many wonderful moments of familial awkwardness that shine through the film’s central conceit — from a squabble at the cemetery over a dead relative smoking cigarettes to a wedding reception drinking game that soon devolves into uncontrollable howls of laughter. 


Wang’s expert blending of humor and tragedy reflects her refreshingly honest and unembellished depiction of human emotion. She refuses to play any one scene solely for laughs or another for tears; she simply allows her characters to exist as human beings who react to individual moments as individuals. In other words, Wang foregoes melodrama and cheap, musically-scored sentimentality for quiet, intimate moments that carry their own weight and significance. 


This quiet intimacy allows the film’s awkward moments to ring more true and more comically, yes, but they also allow seemingly insignificant moments to take on great meaning — from a hand covering one’s mouth to the unexplained reappearance of an unidentified bird.


That is to say, it is in the movie’s quietest corners that its meanings echo the loudest. Take the aforementioned bird, for instance. 


Early in the film, Billi comes home to her New York apartment to find it unoccupied, as usual, except for a small sparrow that mysteriously broke in. Initially played off as a seemingly inconsequential, albeit strange, occurrence, it isn’t until much later in the film that Billi spots another sparrow on the other side of the world (could it possibly be the same one?) in her hotel room in China.


Now, Wang leaves the true meaning of the connection of these birds mostly ambiguous — even as a striking image of sparrows taking flight closes out the film. Perhaps the reappearing birds symbolize an intangible familial bond that extends across cultures, even across continents. 


Or is it that the sparrows’ initial, unwanted appearances act as foreshadowing of an unwanted farewell? Of death, even? If so, the image of their exodus takes on an even deeper meaning of transcendent healing — like that of an illness being miraculously cured or a lie being transformed into truth.


— Clinton Olsasky


“The Farewell” is currently playing at the Fleur Cinema & Cafe.