THE FAREWELL: PUT ON A HAPPY FACE
There is delusion that means unnecessarily avoiding confronting a grimmer reality and delusion that is sometimes necessary to survive. When confronting the harsh reality of terminal illness, perhaps the latter is a good diversionary tactic, a way to ignore having to dwell on an uncertain and unceremonious future and instead focus on the everyday joys.
Unfortunately, I know this story firsthand. My own, 84-year-old mother fought stomach cancer for three years valiantly, to the point of having her stomach removed to avoid its spread. But three years ago, she had difficulty swallowing food and grew more tired. Instead of considering the fact that the cancer had returned, she put on a better face and said that it was a case of her hiatal hernia affecting her esophageal lining, or some such explanation. Doctors did not detect cancer either.
But on a visit there in March 2017, my wife and I noticed this getting worse and forced her to go to a hospital for testing. It was cancer, unfortunately, and she fell into a coma and died less that a month later.
Would it have been better for her to have known it was the cancer earlier and lived her remaining months in depression and fear of death? There was nothing the doctors could do anyway. We always thought it was best to be oblivious, possibly delusional.
Which is a long way of bringing us to Lulu Wang's 2019 film, The Farewell, now streaming on Amazon Prime. The delusion is even deeper there, a secret protected by both family and physicians. In the film, a family matriarch in China, Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zen) is stricken with cancer after a series of tests but does not realize that the doctors are only giving her a few months to live. Instead, her sister and siblings are told the news and decide to keep it from Nai Nai so she can enjoy the remaining time she has left.
The family decides to hold a mock wedding between a grandson and a girl he hardly has dated in order to bring everyone together one last time for a happy occasion. The plucky Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi, played by the emotional but strong Awkwafina, at first is told to stay in New York while she awaits word on a Guggenheim Fellowship but opts at the last minute to defy her family's wishes and come to the wedding in a midsized Chinese town.
There is where the movie takes off. Apparently, Chinese tradition dictates that it is up to the family to bear the grief of a dying person, to take on the burden instead of putting it on the shoulders of the terminally ill. It is a compassionate way to connect family and to ease suffering through collective grief.
But that approach, however humane it may appear in the East, does not suit Billi, who comes from the Western tradition of disclosing illness and allowing the sick to live their last days in dignity, if not sadness. Awkwafina has difficulty keeping her fond feelings for her favorite relative to herself, at times virtually breaking down in front of family. She is numb, unbelieving and entirely angry that the universe can take down her feisty, at times testy grandma, played with a fiery calm by Suz-hen.
Billi somehow holds it all together, in audacious scenes where she must try on a gown as a wedding attendant and at large family dinners full of fights and regrets but with a forced happiness for Nai Nai's sake. Billi even gets her two uncles drunk, even though they have sworn off drinking, as a means for them to bond.
All the time, she is yearning to tell the secret to Nai Nai, whom has heartfelt conversations with about life and love. Awkwafina plays these scenes with grace and attitude, making them unsentimental and with a hard shell instead of mawkish. This movie could have veered into Hallmark movie of the week territory but with performances played for laughs and seething anger held in check, it is Chekhovian rather than cheery.
There are still morals to be had. There is some doubt whether Nai Nai is really deluded by her family instead of just hiding the fact that she knows she has a short time to live. She wants her family to come together and be happy, to move forward. By agreeing to their scheme, this can take place.
There is a telling scene near the end of the movie when Billi tells Nai Nai that she did not get the Guggenheim scholarship but has yet to tell her parents. Nai Nai leans into her granddaughter, looks straight in her eyes and responds that it is fine. The secret is to keep pushing the envelope and finding your way, be "the bull endlessly ramming its horns into the corner of the room." Nai Nai is that bull, and Billi is too.
The 37-year-old Wang based the movie on her own experiences with her grandmother in China and the clash of traditions that was difficult for her to sometimes understand. Her story was originally told on an episode of This American Life. Her partner is filmmaker Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight also possesses a poetic humanism, albeit not in a humorous vein.
Coming to grips with those differences is a key message of the film. As a minor character says to Billi, "You moved to the West a long time ago. To you, someone's life belongs only to him. But that's the difference between East and West. One's life in the East is part of the whole. Family. Society."
In the age of pandemic, we all are better at understanding the need for family, as we create our own little society at home and with each other. This is a movie not so much about grieving as about enjoying small moments with each other through the laughter, the fights and the occasional tears.