In The Farewell, we follow Billi, a young Asian-American woman, as she takes an unplanned trip from New York to Changchun, China, to visit her grandmother—perhaps for the last time. Billi has just found out that her grandmother (Nai Nai) has lung cancer, stage IV. The doctor gives her three months to live. As troubling as such a diagnosis already is, the situation is further complicated by the family’s choice to lie about the truth of Nai Nai’s illness to her. Now, Billi’s family gathers to see Nai Nai under the pretense of a wedding, but the festivities can barely conceal a heartfelt and heart-wrenching struggle over familial responsibility, filial piety, and whether Nai Nai deserves to know.


The Farewell opens with a twist on a familiar phrase: “Based on an actual lie.” It’s at once comic and thoughtful—two adjectives that aptly describe many of the scenes that follow. The film draws on the real-life experiences of writer and director Lulu Wang, who, in 2013, found out that her grandmother had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The internal and external turmoil resulting from Wang’s family decision to lie about the diagnosis is mirrored closely in the world of her movie.

Because of the lie, 
Billi’s homecoming maintains an air of the ordinary, but tensions bubbling just below the surface are constantly threatening to boil over. A major source of these conflicts is the confluence of Western and Eastern worldviews, as exemplified respectively by Billi and the older members of her family. Billi, who does not agree with the decision to withhold the diagnosis from Nai Nai, is repeatedly reminded by various relatives that her reluctance is due to an incomplete understanding of Chinese culture. Her uncle laments that if only Billi grew up in China, then she would understand why obfuscating the truth is the best course of action in a difficult situation.

Indeed, the instances of cultural disconnect between Billi and her family provide an incisive look at the negotiation of Western and Eastern mindsets, and the result is in turns serious and amusing: moments of strained family dynamics are punctuated with scenes like a grave-sweeping where director Wang pokes fun at Chinese culture, not in a mocking way, but with the sincere naivete of a foreigner. These scenes are comedic, rightfully so—there’s something to be said for using humor as coping. At the same time, viewers should be cautioned against taking everything on-screen as a joke. It would be a disservice to write off Chinese tradition as ridiculous, unlearned, or unbelievable. Rooted ways of comprehending the world are made tangible through these traditions; they are more than ritualistic actions. As a result, the unusual and humorous aspects of Chinese culture (from a Western perspective) tend to draw the family together and reaffirm their shared heritage despite generational and geographical distance.

prominent point of contention in Billi’s family is the honor-shame paradigm of Chinese culture. While Western nations lean toward an innocence-guilt mentality, where the utmost principle is for you to do what is “right,” Eastern countries give fuller consideration to actions that bring honor and avoid shame. The Farewell illustrates this murky divide with Billi’s hesitance to go along with her family’s ruse. In her mind, the right thing is to let Nai Nai know. The guilt of not doing the “right thing” visibly weighs on her. But her family contends that Billi must look beyond her personal guilt and see other dimensions of the situation: in not telling Nai Nai, they bestow her with honor by enabling her to live as per usual and not feel as if things are done for her out of pity. The family also avoids the shame of placing emotional burden on Nai Nai. Additionally, Billi’s dad and uncle, who both live overseas, avoid the societal shame of not being the primary caretakers of their mother in her final days. The film entangles us in a web of decision-making that carefully assesses the relative importance of the truth, its potential effects on the patient, and on the many others around her.

The medical value of this ideological quandary cannot be overstated. Physicians 
will figure prominently into this cultural dialectic, and undoubtedly not only with patients from Eastern backgrounds. Though patient autonomy is next to irreproachable in our practices, this ideal may not hold the same importance in other contexts. In the film, a bellhop asks Billi whether she thinks China or America is better. She responds by stating that neither country is better, only different. Could the same be said for views on patient rights? When the family goes with Nai Nai to see a Chinese physician, Billi is surprised and frustrated to find that he too withholds the true diagnosis at the family’s request, calling their choice a “good lie.”

The Farewell will not force viewers to choose a side by the end of the film, but they will nevertheless grapple with the frictional interfaces of two culturally divergent belief systems. Personally, throughout the film, I wanted Nai Nai to say, “I know about the cancer.” A confession from her would have justified my presupposition that the truth would not devastate Nai Nai as much as her sons feared. But she withholds that from us, whether also caught up in the calculus of deception or earnestly, and we are not given the answer to this pressing thought. Yet the movie can’t help but hint at her underlying knowledge, as Wang also indicates on an interview that her own experience was similarly ambiguous.

In the aftermath of the film’s release, Wang revealed that her Nai 
Nai is still alive six years after her diagnosis, which remains the same, and despite the intervening time, the family still has not told her about the cancer. This reality raises a host of questions: Is the diagnosis correct? Is she getting treatment? Or is she missing out on treatment? Does she actually know? Is the family now responsible to tell her? Though our initial instinct may be to react with indignation, the fact that Wang’s Nai Nai has outlived her prognosis returns us to a comment made in the film by Billi’s great-aunt: the family doesn’t plan to withhold the truth indefinitely but wants to wait until the right time, when she is close to passing. Telling Nai Nai preemptively, while she is still living with vigor, would do more harm than good by damaging her will to live. Given the six years of fruitful life that have passed since the initial diagnosis, maybe she’s right.





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