Based on a true lie.
That’s how writer-director Lulu Wang introduces her semi-autobiographical movie The Farewell.
The lie speaks to a longstanding tradition in Chinese families where a dying patient is not told of their terminal diagnosis, the idea being that an oblivious patient lives happier and longer. Abiding her family’s lie was Wang’s exact experience with her beloved grandmother.
Billi (Wang’s fictional self) is a Chinese-American artist who lives a lonely, broke existence in New York, worlds apart from her mom and dad who live nearby. She is devastated when her parents inform her that her Nai Nai (grandmother) in China, with whom she’s very close, has stage 4 cancer. To make matters worse, they suggest she not come to see Nai Nai, saying Billi is too emotionally overt and might ruin the family’s plan not to tell the old woman she’s dying. Billi decides to go anyway.
Needing to create an excuse for everyone to come together, the family informs Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend of three months that their nuptials will be fast-tracked. The wedding is hastily arranged to be in Changchun, China, where Nai Nai lives, so everyone can see the dying matriarch one last time, in a joyful setting, without revealing it’s a farewell. While everyone else pains to hide their feelings, Nai Nai is ecstatic that her far-flung relatives have gathered in one place and excitedly takes on the role of wedding planner and social convener. Everything leads up to the wedding, where many drink away their emotions, and we wonder if someone will spill the beans.
The breakout hit of 2019’s Sundance Film Festival, The Farewell is one of those rare comedies that is as hilarious as it is tragic. A compelling and honest portrait of family connection, it’s a story with universal appeal. The movie packs an emotional wallop, but, as Wang says, “The whole purpose of the lie was to bring joy.”
The Farewell will enjoy a week-long run from Friday, Oct. 18 until Thursday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 nightly with the Film Society hosting you on Friday and Saturday. In English and Mandarin (partly subtitled), it plays at the Salmar Classic Cinema. Stay tuned for the twist ending in the credits.