The Good Lie in ‘The Farewell’
By Jon Ochiai
In Writer and Director Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”, 31 year-old financially strapped, aspiring writer Billi, played by Awkwafina discovers that her Nai Nai (Grandma in Chinese), played by Shuzhen Zhao, is dying of Stage 4 lung cancer. However, her Family doesn’t tell Nai Nai that she’s sick, that she’s dying.
Her Dad Haiyan, played by compassionate Tzi Ma, and his older brother Haibin, played by gentle Yongbo Jiang, construct their narrative: The family would return to Changchun, China for the wedding of Haibin’s son Hao Hao, played by Han Chen, and his Japanese bride Aiko, Aoi Mizuhara. They will all say their “Goodbye” to Nai Nai, then. 25 years ago, Haiyan’s family immigrated to New York. While Haibin’s family immigrated to Japan.
In Chinese tradition, a person is part of the whole, of family. Consequently, Chinese culture deems it far kinder not to tell family members that they are gravely ill, that they are going to die. So that they may live out the rest of their lives in peace. At least that’s the noble intention.
Yet for Billi, controlling the narrative occurs far more than unkind: It’s just wrong. During Nai Nai’s emergency medical visit, Billi outs the narrative speaking in English to Dr. Song, played by charming Jim Liu, “It’s a lie.” He replies, “It’s a good lie.” Not understanding English, Nai Nai then inquires if young handsome Dr. Song is single. Because, her favorite granddaughter Billi is still unmarried. Yeah.
That’s the ironic beauty and poignancy of Writer- Director Lulu’s “The Farewell”. It’s based on the lie she lived in her own life. So watching “The Farewell” is like watching life unfold. Will the “good lie” set you free?
Awkwafina is the revelation. Her Billi loves her Nai Nai, so. She remembers fondly catching dragonflies with her as a child. Back in New York, she calls Nai Nai daily, just to talk. Billi is the former piano prodigy, now aspiring writer applying for the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Billi acutely discerns people. Awkwafina possesses the wondrous gift of letting us know what’s going on inside in her glance, in her silence. She’s amazing.