Lulu Wangs surprising Chinese-American hit interweaves compassion and disconnect
In order to make the most of a loved ones last days， is it a good idea to hide from her that shes dying？ Ones perspective on this question， suggests director Lulu Wang in The Farewell， depends on ones culture.
Adapted from an episode Wang wrote for NPRs podcast series This American Life， the story is based on Wangs experience with her own terminally ill grandmother. Wangs family drama opened in US theaters in July amid rising interest in Asian American media， exemplified by last summers Crazy Rich Asians and this Mays Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe.
But unlike these more derivative works—a modern Cinderella story and a When Harry Met Sally remake， respectively—Wangs second feature film is shot almost 75 percent in Mandarin， with a central premise that may be puzzling or alienating to American theatergoers. And still， it managed to shatter the years per-theater box office record set by Avengers： Endgame on its opening weekend.
The films central moral dilemma is represented by its viewpoint character， a first-generation Chinese-American named Billi， played by rapper and actress Awkwafina in a rare dramatic role. Billis parents try to prevent her from going to her cousin HaoHaos wedding in China， as she “cant hide [her] emotions.”
This is because the hasty wedding is just a pretext for the family to say goodbye to Billis grandmother， “NaiNai，” who has been kept in the dark about her lung cancers prognosis so it wont “ruin her good mood” at this rare family reunion.
Lies， big and small， drive the action and drama throughout the movie. In the opening scenes， a bareheaded Billi assures NaiNai over the phone that she is wearing a hat， as the latter worries about her being cold in New York. When Billi hears an obscured hospital announcement on NaiNais end， NaiNai lies that it was the voice of her great-aunt， in order not to worry her granddaughter.
Later， Billi flies to her grandmothers hometown of Changchun behind her parents backs， and the family goes to zany lengths to put on a celebration while trying to keep their sadness in check.
Billi wrestles with her Americanized ethics， which tell her that NaiNai has the right to know crucial information about her own life. Her Chinese family， though， believes that it is their collective duty to spare their loved one from an unhappy burden. Eventually， NaiNais doctor reveals that he told a similar lie to his own grandmother， and Billi finds out that NaiNai had lied to her husband before his death from cancer years ago.
Still， Wang manages to interweave the familys compassion and concern for one another amid their apparent penchant for dishonesty： the eerie operatic music in scenes where the family exchanges grim looks behind NaiNais back speaks of how much they will miss her; during the wedding reception， as the camera spins to dizzying effect， Billi embraces HaoHao when he cannot control his grief after too many drinks. When NaiNai encourages Billi to make a speech onstage， instead of a dramatic reveal， she stutters in broken Mandarin about how special it is to be in China with her family.
Its these kernels of genuine compassion that help the film traverse its surface cultural disconnects， and by extension， the atmosphere of fear and otherness that pervade media representations of Asian cultures. Wang has said in interviews that she was surprised to hear not just from Chinese viewers， but viewers from other cultures， whose families hid similar truths.
At the close of the film， the family assembles to take a photo under an artificial rainbow arch， while HaoHao continues to sob and NaiNai beams at the front and center. Just as a rainbow is an illusion of water and light， visible only when all components align， so a family tells what beautiful and fleeting lies it can to keep itself together.
– DONNA KARIMI
Billi： Do you think we should tell grandma？
N@ ju9de w6men y～ngg`i g3osu n2inai ma？
Aunt： Wouldn't that be too painful？
T3i t7ngk^ le ba？
Billi：What if…she wants to say goodbye？
R%gu6 t` xi2ng shu4 z3iji3n ne？
Aunt：If you tell her， youll ruin her good mood， right？
N@ g3osu t` ji&hu@le t` m0ih2o de x～nq！ng. N@ shu4 du# ba？
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