White lies are typically framed generously as politesse or selfishly as social lubricant. In "The Farewell," written and directed by Lulu Wang, the white lie manifests as all of the above and more: a cultural reflex and a perverse expression of love. When a Chinese family launches into a cover-up of one member's stage-four lung cancer, even a colluding doctor casually tells a skeptic, "It's a good lie."
Wang first told her version of the story, which she bills as "based on an actual lie," on a 2016 episode of "This American Life." Like the true story, the fictionalized version taps a rich vein of gentle humor concerning the idiosyncrasies and foibles within family dynamics and generational differences.
Wang creates an avatar in Billi (Awkwafina), a first-generation Chinese American immigrant living in Brooklyn and struggling to make ends meet as a writer.
Billi's parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), reluctantly break the news that Billi's grandmother, or "Nai Nai" (Zhao Shuzhen), hasn't long to live, and as Haiyan explains, "The family thinks it's better not to tell her."
The tension of that moral decision, which must be remade in every moment with Nai Nai, suffuses every scene in "The Farewell," pressing the audience to adopt their own moral stance. Most viewers will struggle along with protagonist Billi, viewing the choice through a predominantly Western lens favoring the rights of the individual. Haiyan's older brother Haibin (Jiang Yongbo) articulates the other side: "In the East a person's life is part of a whole. Family. Society. It's our duty to carry this emotional burden for her."
And so the family conspires to hasten a wedding between Billi's cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) as a pretext for an international family reunion at the home base of Changchun, China. In safety-by-numbers fashion, the family can enjoy the company of Nai Nai and bid an unspoken farewell. An aghast Billi must process the injury of this news and the insult that her parents forbid her to attend. As someone who wears her heart on her sleeve perhaps especially when it comes to her beloved Nai Nai Billi cannot be trusted to maintain the lie. Her regular long-distance phone conversations are one thing; her expressive face is quite another.
The setup makes for genuinely amusing light farce, but in their patient observation, Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano conjure a heartfelt intimacy with the family. The actors' subtleties of expression -- revealing to us but not quite to Nai Nai, the truth of their suffering and yearnings -- contribute to the film being more of an emotional experience than an intellectual one (consider Awkwafina and Zhao, along with Wang, early Oscar frontrunners).
Even at a slim 100 minutes, the dynamic becomes somewhat repetitive, but the actors always offer up finely etched emotional truths about the ways generations of family communicate and fail to communicate, the domestic implications of immigration, and the transcendence of blood-bound familial love. Even when half a world away, even when alone, one intuits that love of family and of home remain strong and, as Wang suggests, free as a bird.