September 18th, 2019


The Farewell

Now Playing at the Savoy Theater

(3.5 stars)

I am not scared of death.

If I am right about death, it is literally nothing to be afraid of. If the majority is right, then I will be the first soul to politely ask Satan to please turn up the thermostat.

Dying, however, sounds horrible.

I dread the year that I learn that my disease is terminal. I will be thinking that I want to make the most of my final days but I will be too sick and depressed to enjoy them.

We all must die. But it would be a rare blessing to enjoy life until the end, free from the worry about death and the awful medical treatments that only stave off the inevitable.

Well, that’s what the Chinese think, anyway.

Apparently, in Han Chinese culture, the family of a terminal cancer patient works together to hide the diagnosis from their dying relative.

“The Farewell” begins with elderly Nai Nai getting diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung cancer in Changchun, China. Nai Nai’s sister tells the dying woman that she merely has Benign Shadows, whatever that means. But then she calls Nai Nai’s relatives around the world and urges them to come back to China to see their dying matriarch one last time.

It sounds outlandish, but this actually happened to writer/director Lulu Wang six years ago. In the movie, as in real life, the family explained to Nai Nai that the whole clan was reuniting in Changchun for a wedding. Nai Nai’s shy grandson and his new Japanese girlfriend were forced to pretend they were suddenly deeply in love and getting hitched.

We witness all of this weirdness from the perspective of Billi, Nai Nai’s American granddaughter. Billi (played by actress/rapper Awkwafina) is a completely relatable 20-something. She is educated but underemployed. She’s smart but insecure. She has a bad relationship with her parents because they can’t understand why she won’t buckle down and work a miserable, responsible job like they do.

“The Farewell” works as a family drama. It also works as an educational contrast between Chinese culture and our own.

Lulu Wang is careful not to attack China too hard. When pressed to answer which country is better, Billi diplomatically answers: “they’re different.”

But Ms. Wang does tell us that we have our stuff together in a way that China still does not. When Billi checks into a new high-rise hotel, she learns that the elevator is broken and she has to boil her drinking water like a Survivor contestant. When Nai Nai goes to the wedding banquet hall to confirm the lobster dinner she paid for, they pull a last minute switcharoo and announce that they are serving crab.

But one thing the Chinese have over us is their innovative end-of-life care. In America, we waste so much money extending the last few months of life without any regard to the quality of life or the happiness of the patient.

At first, Billi is horrified that everyone is lying to Nai Nai. But then she sees how happy and carefree and in control her grandmother is. Nai Nai still gets to be the matriarch of the family, as opposed to a piteous patient.

In the intellectual climax of the film, Billi’s uncle explains the Eastern philosophy behind what they are doing. “We are carrying the burden so Nai Nai doesn’t have to.” Billi is convinced, and so are we the audience.

As for me, I still think dying suddenly is the best possible outcome. But having all my loved ones lie to me to help me enjoy my final months is a close second.

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