The Farewell, dir. Lulu Wang, 2019
Lulu Wang's screenplay is perhaps one of the most impeccably crafted pieces of writing I have come across in a long time. From such an inspired starting point, it's hard to see how any film (or even any treatment to come out of such material) could possibly fail. And with her subtle and deft handling of the quiet explosiveness which resides at the heart of her premise, it most certainly doesn't. The Farewell establishes the concrete understanding of what is a paradoxical certainty: at the heart of truth there is often a lie and the basis of most lies is truth. Or rather this: what we say aloud as the truth need not be the actual truth. Or even: what we don't know, won't kill us. Or simply: truth is never a certainty.
The premise to explore this conundrum revolves around ageing matriarch, Nai Nai (played by the brilliant Zhao Shuzhen), who is diagnosed with advanced cancer as the movie opens. But the doctors don't tell her the diagnosis. Rather her family decide to adopt an old Chinese custom which spares the dying from the truth of their imminent fate by rather telling the sufferer they are okay, that stage four lung cancer is just "benign shadows" and nothing more. This is all codified by a Chinese saying: it is fear of dying which causes death. In other words, by pretending imminent death is not an inevitability, life (and the happiness of life) can be prolonged without undue complications and the additional emotional burden (for all concerned). This sounds like a compassionate and wise idea, no doubt tried and tested over many centuries. It provides dignity and peace of mind, but it also raises a number of delicate ethical questions about how we manage death and decline which is where Wang's script gathers its calm and beautiful power. Does a person not have the right to know their own fate? What if they need to put their affairs in order? What if they want to retain some agency over their own existence? What if they want to say goodbye on their own knowing terms? Surely one seeks medical knowledge for truth, not deception? Is there such a thing as a 'good lie'? These quandaries are best iterated through the character of Billi, who left China as a child and is now an Americanized New Yorker, played by Awkwafina. She is living a hard brutalist existence as a struggling writer in a country which rarely sugar-coats the grim fact of reality, where truth is sacrosanct, where knowledge is power, even liberation. So she struggles with what the family plan to do: all gather for one last 'farewell' for Nai Nai but under the guise of a celebratory wedding of a cousin Hao Hao (the wonderfully compliant Chen Han) rather than a mirthful, painful and eulogising goodbye.
Meanwhile the theme of truth-telling and of farewells proliferates in unexpected but profoundly insightful ways. There are a number of farewells being enacted here: most significantly that of an old world order of established, localised culture being paid one last tribute before it's handed over for good to a new world order of globalised modern ubiquity and banality. This is shrewdly captured by the contrast between Nai Nai's very traditional Chinese home and the rapidly constructed high-rise hotel where the family all stay, all modern bling and cheap generic comfort. Later it's made clear that all these high-rise buildings have replaced former residential neighbourhoods, bulldozed to the ground and sealed over in concrete to erect 'modernity' in its place. There are also interesting commentaries about the differences between cultures and whether it's possible to retain any cultural identity when one moves away from the country of one's birth.
There's also the issue of Hao Hao and Aiko's wedding. Hao Hao gamely goes along with the pretense of getting married much sooner than expected in order to give the family an excuse to gather to say goodbye to Nai Nai, but Hao Hao has been raised in Japan and does not speak Chinese that well and his bride to be, Aiko, doesn't have a clue what's going on. Cleverly, this ignorant bliss mirrors the state that Nai Nai is enveloped in, but we also feel for the desolation of Aiko and the loneliness of being so removed from the immediacy of her own future life. Their wedding is a tender and awkward public spectacle which masks what becomes more and more apparent in that it's quite possibly all a charade, an arrangement to acquiesce to familial obligation. This is always handled with understated skill by Wang's direction, and as such the question itself resides in a pool of serene ambiguity, but there is one truly shattering scene at the wedding banquet itself when a drunk Hao Hao finally lets his guard down and weeps bitterly in his cousin Billi's lap. She, being American, knows exactly what's up and Hao Hao knows he has sealed his own fate, but both remain silent, never expressing the truth, but carrying it in their devastated and tragic silence on the matter. There is something about this scene which speaks so cogently to the universality of family. The fact is Hao Hao is himself sacrificing the truth in order to preserve the fragile layer of ice which has formed under the feet of the entire family: keeping up appearances so as to avoid a messy and disquieting reality breaking from under them. It's equally likely poor sweet Aiko knows exactly what the truth is too, but she has her obligations to perform as a dutiful daughter and, now, wife. Sad.
The ending of this film is quiet, unexpected and truly breathtaking. It's a testament to Awkwafina's flawless performance that we get to see everything contained in her still and resilient face. Her stoicism matches that of her grandmother, who, whether she actually knows or senses the truth of her own diagnosis, certainly realises that when she says goodbye to her granddaughter as she returns to America, it is indeed a last farewell. There is nothing overly wrought about this scene, nothing saturnine, but it rings true in a way which is deeply affecting. The final cut of Billi walking back in New York and suddenly yelling out one of Nai Nai's defiant exclamations on the crowded streets which then startles a flock of birds from a tree back in China, is the perfect metaphor for capturing a sense of how thoughts and connections to people and loved ones can travel and reverberate so effortlessly through time: the old theory about a butterfly flapping its wings in Bali causing a hurricane in Arizona, that kind of metaphysical logic.
It turns out that the real Nai Nai (a relation of Wang's) is still alive six years after her diagnosis: it does make you wonder whether there is a definite truth in that Chinese proverb which says that it's the fear of knowing which kills you. Ignorance is bliss.
Finally, the film's catch-line is brilliant: "This film is based on an actual lie."