Movie Review: 'The Farewell'
The Farewell, from Chinese-American director Lulu Wang, is the basically true story of Wang’s own experience with how her family handled her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. In a nutshell, they just plain didn’t let her grandmother know.
Yes, this is unusual — but it turns out in China, it’s maybe not exactly so strange. Apparently, it’s not unheard of for Chinese families simply not to tell their loved ones they have cancer, with the idea being the sick family member is more likely to die from fear than from the cancer itself.
The fictionalized version of Wang is Billi, played wonderfully by the rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina, and she’s naturally baffled by this approach, having spent most of her life in the United States. But it’s not up to her. As her uncle says, the family is the important thing, not her own feelings, and as a family it’s their responsibility to bear the emotional burden of the diagnosis so her grandmother doesn’t have to.
But of course every family is made up of individuals, and so we also discover how each person has made major decisions to fulfill their own needs. We see how these actions have affected each of them, helping them to carve out their own lives, but also putting them in deep conflict with their allegiance to family. And we see the opposite, as Billi’s great-aunt decided to stay and take care of her sister, sacrificing much of herself.
Wang does a masterful job showing us these contradictions, and helping us see that we all make these same decisions. Her artistry is impressive, and she understands the details that connect us as people (like any great family drama, so much of this one centers on food).
I can’t tell you that what the family in The Farewell did is right or wrong. What they did, each of them, for themselves and for Billi’s grandmother, is what they did — and consequences follow. And isn’t this life? Nobody really knows, we just do the best we can.