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Movie Review

Is there ever such a thing as a good lie?

Billi, a struggling young artist in Brooklyn, isn't so sure.

I mean, yes, she generally lies to her family about all kinds of things. But those are mostly insignificant fibs, such as telling her grandmother Nai Nai that she always wears a hat when it's cold outside so that the older woman won't worry about her. Or she might tell a lie of omission, such as failing to tell her parents that she's behind in her rent. Those kinds of lies are, frankly, no big deal to Billi.

But when she learns about her family's Really Big Lie, it nearly blows her away.

Billi accidentally finds out that her beloved Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer! But the whole family—all of Billi's aunts, uncles and cousins— have decided not to give her the bad news. They want to keep her ignorant of the prognosis, even though she may only have weeks left to live, believing it better that the old woman live out her life without fear or grief.

The whole clan has gone so far as setting up a staged wedding, between a cousin and his short-term girlfriend, just so they could have an excuse to get together in China for one last loving farewell to Nai Nai, who's none the wiser.

Oh, and on top of all that, they weren't gonna tell Billi anything about it at all! They were all certain that she would give the whole scheme away the minute her loving Nai Nai looked her in the eyes. And frankly, they were probably right about that.

Who came up with this nutty plan any way, Billi wonders angrily? How could they not tell Nai Nai? Doesn't she deserve a chance to say goodbye, too?

Billi decides there's only one thing to do: She must make her way to China to be with her extended family and her dying grandmother, no matter what it takes. She'll go. She'll love. She'll laugh. She'll cry.

And … she'll lie like a rug.

Positive Elements

The one thing that's unquestionable in The Farewell is how much Nai Nai's family loves her. She's the family matriarch. The rock. The one whose opinions and values have shaped the entire clan in profound ways. And though one could question the choice to deceive her, no one can question each family member's deep love for this grand old lady.

Billi is initially aghast at the idea of deceiving Nai Nai. But as the film unfolds, it gently explores that question, of whether there's any such thing as a "good" lie. Billi's not the only one struggling mightily to keep the enormous secret. It repeatedly pops up in the family discussions outside Nai Nai's hearing. Billi's dad even ruminates on the idea that in America, such a lie "would be illegal." These tug-and-pull discussions speak to just how much this extended family loves its bossy-but-loving matriarch. And even though the family members are spread out to various points on the globe, we see how the hereditary glue of family responsibility and love, as well as strong Chinese cultural traditions, unite and strengthen this grieving clan.

In fact, Billi increasingly wrestles with the idea of being so far away from people whom she loves, as well as the Chinese culture that she left behind when her family moved to America. "One of the few good memories from my childhood was my summers with Nai Nai," she muses. An uncle also opines that family in China is particularly important, "In the East, one's life is part of the whole," he notes, contrasting it with the American value placed on pursuing individual happiness.

Even though Nai Nai is feeling the ill effects of her disease (though she has no idea how sick she is, since her doctors conspire with her family to keep the harsh news from her), she never lets it slow her down or dim her loving spirit. She pushes forward, fulfilling her duties, speaking words of encouragement and taking time whenever she can to winkingly motivate and persuade her "stupid girl" of a granddaughter (which she says as a playful term of endearment) in positive directions. But if anything, she strives to take any negative worry off Billi's shoulders. "Life is not about what you do, it's about how you do it," she tells the young woman.

We also learn that what Billi's family has chosen to do isn't something that they dreamed up on their own. In fact, we see that there's a long Chinese tradition of not telling terminally ill elderly people the truth about their condition in an attempt to spare them from the associated pain that comes with it. This certainly doesn't resolve the fundamental ethical issue at the core of the film, but we do see how this tradition is exerting its influence on Billi's extended family.

Spiritual Content

"Come Healing," an almost hymn-like Leonard Cohen song in the movie's soundtrack, speaks to broken people and poetically calls for healing of the body, mind, spirit and limb.

The whole family goes out to a graveyard to visit Billi's grandfather's gravesite. They leave food and other items on the grave, burn some things as a sacrifice and perform an Eastern religious ceremony of prayers, bows and blessings. The family talks about leaving food that he'll like, though it's unclear the extent that they believe his deceased spirit is somehow truly partaking of their sacrifices for him.

After lamenting the fact that she wasn't there for her grandfather's passing, Billi wakes the next morning with a half-dream/half-vision of the man smoking and looking out her bedroom window. She blinks away the image, but even after he's gone, the cigarette smoke drifts through the open window. Likewise, birds keep appearing indoors where Billi sees them, perhaps another opaque spiritual symbol that the film never really unpacks clearly.

To illustrate the positive side of the American culture, Billi's parents tell a story of a pastor giving them a key to the church so that young Billi could freely practice her piano lessons when the building was closed.

Sexual Content

Upon hearing that her cousin is getting married after dating a young woman for only a few weeks, Billie wonders if he "knocked her up?" She then learns that the faux wedding is only being used as a pretense for the whole family to go visit Nai Nai.

When Nai Nai hears of the quick engagement, however, she begins thinking similar thoughts. She suggests that the family should lie and say that the couple had been dating for a year, "for appearances sake." Nai Nai also makes note of the couple's awkwardness around each other. She wonders what they'll do in the bedroom without her there to encourage them. She also makes a winking comment to Billi about the positive aspect of being "independent" in the area of sexual needs.

Billi is given a professional Chinese massage that involves placing heated cups on her naked back. Later, she pulls off her shirt and we see red bruised circles on her back. Billi's mom has to strip off her husband's pants when he gets inebriated, leaving him stretched out embarrassingly in a T-shirt and underwear.

Nai Nai playfully makes mention of Billi's "little round butt" when first seeing her again after many years. A young woman at a birthday party wears a revealing top. It's implied that the hotel where Billi is staying is a place where men bring call girls. Billi sees several men and women smoking and gambling in a room with the door open. One of the men is shirtless.

Violent Content

Nai Nai sits at a table talking and smoking with old friends at the wedding. They talk of being former soldiers together and of Nai Nai being wounded in a battle.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear a couple of s-words.

Nai Nai repeatedly nudges her sad-faced granddaughter, lovingly calling her "stupid child."

Drug and Alcohol Content

As the stress of lying weighs on people, some start drinking more heavily at meals. It's implied that Billi's dad once had a drinking problem; Nai Nai makes mention of his fatty liver, thanks to that overdrinking. He and Billi's uncle both get staggeringly tipsy at one point. Alcohol flows freely at the wedding (including during a round-the-table drinking game). Three or four people get quite drunk, including the groom.

Billi's dad starts smoking again, too. And a number of other people smoke before and during the wedding. In fact, every wedding table features a large bowl full of cigarettes, and clouds from puffing smokers regularly fill the air.

Nai Nai takes a cancer drug that Billi's uncle bought for her on the internet.

Other Negative Elements

We see Billi sitting on a toilet with her pants down, though nothing critical is visible.

Conclusion

A movie filled with sad people crying can be an emotional affair. A movie of sad people purposely not crying can be even more so. In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang takes that concept a step further.

Wang introduces us to a family that gathers together to talk about their past, their leavings, their stayings, their losses, their memories, their regrets. They do everything they can to gently bottle-up any personal sadness, even as they try to let a loved one know just how much she means to them.

Oh and, out of kindness, they lie their faces off.

The crying part? Well, that's left to us.

Writer/director Wang reported that when she initially offered this semi-autobiographical tale to studios, they wanted her to reshape the script into something closer to an Asian version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Thankfully, she didn't do that.

Instead she crafted a tasty cinematic stew of family depression and grief, hugs and laughter, memories and regrets. It's spiced with sweet, encouraging conversations and funny family dinners, examinations of the differences and similarities of Chinese and American cultures, blatant fibbing, and some pretty heavy drinking and smoking, too.

If, however, you can stomach that full list of ingredients, you end up with something pretty close to food for the familial soul.

Billi and her family wrestle with the idea that their lie could be a good lie. But whether it’s a "little" fib or covering up a relative’s illness, lying has consequences. If you're grappling with how to be honest about difficult issues in your family, consider these Focus on the Family resources.

White Lies Are Still Lies No Matter the Intent

When a Child Has a Problem With Truthfulness

30 Days to Taming Your Tongue

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Awkwafina as Billi; Tzi Ma as Haiyan; Diana Lin as Jian; Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai; Han Chen as Hao hao; Aoi Mizuhara as Aiko

Director

Lulu Wang ( )

Distributor

A24

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

July 12, 2019

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Bob Hoose

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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