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Culture Movies

The family fib

Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai, left, and Awkwafina as Billi in The Farewell (Casi Moss/A24)


The family fib

In The Farewell, a Chinese family decides not to tell a matriarch about her terminal cancer

“Based on an actual lie” is the opening tagline to director Lulu Wang’s second feature film, The Farewell. The PG-rated movie tells the story of a Chinese family dealing with the impending death of its beloved matriarch by not telling her she is dying.

Billi (played by Awkwafina) moved from China to New York with her parents at a young age, but maintained strong bonds with her grandmother, or Nai Nai. Now Nai Nai has stage IV cancer, but is oblivious to it: Billi’s dad Haiyan and uncle Haibin choose to withhold the diagnosis from their mom in hopes of letting her die free of anxiety. They orchestrate an elaborate ruse in which the family will gather in China to celebrate a hastily planned wedding, giving them all an opportunity to bid farewell to Nai Nai.

Billi can’t believe it. How could it be right—or even legal—to keep this crucial report from her grandmother? Billi’s parents worry her emotions will get the better of her and she’ll reveal the secret to Nai Nai.

Traveling from Japan and America, the family gathers in Nai Nai’s apartment in China. Director Wang masterfully shows the love and respect the family has for this little dynamo of a lady who speaks frankly and teaches lessons with good humor and cheer to all who will listen. Despite their worry over Billi, it is brothers Haiyan and Haibin who struggle most not to break down in front of their mother.

Cultures clash in The Farewell. Billi has grown up in America, and her values and ideas are different from those of her Chinese family. Her parents are unapologetic about their move to America for what they hoped would be a better life, but they seem to live with a foot in each culture. The family members are thoroughly Eastern in religious outlook. How they deal with lies, death, and the afterlife could prompt worthwhile discussions among viewers.