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“The Farewell” is a film by Lulu Wang and could easily be renamed “The Lie,” or “The Lies,” for ultimately it is about the lies families generate that pass down into the fiber of the family. It opens the Mesilla Valley Film Society’s Fountain Theater in Mesilla at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 13, following a renovation at the movie house.
A young woman, Billi Wang (played by Awkwafina) of Chinese heritage who lives in New York, learns her grandmother Nai Nai (played by Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of cancer, but the family is hiding that from Nai Nai. The diagnosis precipitates a family reunion in China under the pretense of another grandchild Hao Hao (played by Chen Han) getting married.
The ensuing story is full not only of family and societal complexities and moral questions, but of a gentle humor as Billi navigates trying to hide her own emotions and encountering family members she hasn’t seen since childhood.
This film unfolds as it examines the dynamics of this modern Chinese family, scattered across the world having left China when Billi was small. Her parents moved her to America; her uncle’s family moved to Japan. The connections that form and reform as Billi tries to figure out the moral complications of the situation are frustrating and sometimes funny.
The opening of “The Farewell” is delightful with lies as Billi is on the phone with Nai Nai and every exchange they have is basically a lie with Nai Nai telling Billi how dangerous New York is and Billi telling lies about how she is doing and Nai Nai telling lies about being in the hospital for tests.
Director Lulu Wang has said the film is based on a real lie regarding her own grandmother’s illness and is inspired by her own experience as part of an immigrant family. The film works not only on a family level, but on a cultural level, showing both how people are the same across the world and how there are very different cultural mores at play.
“Why tell her?” various family members ask Billi, as she makes it clear she is uncomfortable with the lie. A question that gets more complicated to answer as she discovers the doctor, who is playing along with it, says it is not unusual in China for families to conceal a fatal diagnosis from the one diagnosed. And then, Billi finds that Nai Nai herself lied the same way when her husband was dying years before.
The film is mostly English subtitles, with some English speaking. Language is only one of the well-detailed, well-done aspects of this movie as it reflects the way a family of several languages interacts. Other areas touched on are rifts between individuals as in when Billi’s mother talks about not crying, or showing emotions, because one shouldn’t subject others to one’s feelings. And one of Nai Nai’s sons telling his mother that his father never did quit smoking, revealing yet another lie.
This movie is well worth the viewing, while a thorough examination of the dynamics of a single family reveals one we quickly begin to care about and one we become involved in. “The Farewell” expands into the world and humanity becoming a multi-layered piece of work with a lot of heart.
Elva K. Österreich may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.