When it comes to caring for the well-being of others, is total honesty necessarily the best policy? Isn’t it possible that there could be something to be said for “blissful ignorance?” But then isn’t it unconscionable to intentionally leave someone in the dark? These are thorny questions, much of which depends on one’s perspective, both individually and as part of a collective, issues that are among those addressed in the touching new comedy-drama, “The Farewell.”
Grad student Billi Wang (Awkwafina) leads a full life In New York. While anxiously awaiting word on a fellowship application, the Chinese-born émigré and would-be writer spends much of her time trying to figure out how to make ends meet, a challenging task to be sure. And, when not looking for ways to keep her head above water financially, she visits with friends and her parents, Jian, her mother (Diana Lin), and Haiyan, her father (Tzi Ma), who brought the family to America more than 20 years ago when he landed a translator’s job.
As much as Billi tries to stay upbeat, however, she’s pressed to remain positive when she learns she’s been turned down for the fellowship. And, if that weren’t enough, she receives more bad news when she visits her parents. Word has come from China that the family matriarch, Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), has been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Needless to say, Billi is devastated by the news. She adores her grandmother, particularly for the words of love and encouragement she routinely doles out during their frequent phone conversations.
But Billi is even more upset by some additional disturbing news: She learns from her parents that the extended family has no plans to inform Nai Nai about the severity of her condition. It’s a practice commonly employed by relatives with terminally ill patients in China, a belief based on the notion that there’s no point in unduly burdening the dying, particularly those in otherwise-good spirits. The thinking goes, “Why spoil their mood, especially if they have little time left?”
The family thus intends to keep Nai Nai in the dark, a plan that Billi has major problems with. Having spent most of her life in the U.S., she’s accustomed to Western ways, including full disclosure under such circumstances. Her protests are dismissed, though, her parents insisting that she’s not say a word to Nai Nai. They explain to her that their plan is the Eastern way, one that Nai Nai herself used when she learned that her husband was dying years earlier. Billi’s told that she’s expected to comply, given that all of the other members of the extended family have agreed to go along with it.
Billi also learns that the plan will get put to the test at an upcoming family gathering. Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen), who lives with his family in Japan, recently announced his engagement to his fiancée, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). They decided to marry in China, using the occasion as a front for a reunion that will likely double as a veiled farewell to Nai Nai. Everyone will be in on the secret except, of course, the guest of honor, who has been carefully conditioned to suspect nothing, leading her to believe that she’s in perfect health, that all of her recent medical test results came back as benign.
Unsure how she’ll hold up under this pretense, Billi has reservations about the cover story – and whether she’ll be able to go along with it. It’s something the family has anticipated, too. No sooner does Billi express her concerns when Jian and Haiyan tell her that they don’t want her to attend the reunion, fearful that she’ll crack under the pressure and let something slip. Given her love for Nai Nai, though, she disregards the request and makes the trip, albeit with great trepidation.
When Billi arrives in the family home of Changchun, everyone is astounded to see her. Haiyan, Jian, Hao Hao and Aiko, along with Billi’s uncle, Haibin (Yongbo Jiang), and grandma’s younger sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), are shocked when the unexpected guest arrives. They’re all worried enough that they will not be able to keep up a good front, but now they have concern that their Americanized relative will be able to keep mum, too.
The one most perplexed by this, of course, is Nai Nai herself. Unaware that anything is going on, she’s her usual cheerful self. She’s pleased that the whole family is together again, something that hasn’t happened for a long time. And she eagerly goes about planning the wedding reception, paying close attention to every last little detail. But, at the same time, she senses something may be amiss – the long faces and melancholy moods of her relatives suggest something is wrong, even if she can’t identify specifically what.
As this scenario plays out, the family experiences a number of close calls. Little Nai Nai and brothers Haiyan and Haibin do their best to run interference, but tricky situations arise often, placing the entire plan on the verge of falling apart. And, ironically enough, Billi is seldom the cause for concern in these instances. With the wedding approaching, the family’s subsequent departure pending and Nai Nai’s health showing signs of further deterioration, it remains to be seen whether everyone will be able to successfully hold things together. The desire to say a cloaked but heartfelt farewell comes into conflict with the need to say a proper goodbye, a challenge made more difficult by emotions that are continually being amped up.
Those of us accustomed to Western ways will likely side with Billi when it comes to her view of full disclosure. The sense of staring down the truth, no matter how difficult, is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the concept of rugged individualism, a trait especially ingrained in the American psyche. The idea of tackling challenges – even those likely doomed to futile failure – permeates our “take it like a man” culture, regardless of gender.
In the East, however, it’s often a different story. Despite living in the Westernized cultures of America and Japan, much of Billi’s family still clings to the old traditions, especially those that involve collective efforts. Indeed, as Billi’s Uncle Haibin observes, in the ways of the Old World, one’s life is not necessarily one’s own, that individuals are part of a collective in which everyone is expected to participate and cooperate for the well-being of the whole, even if such efforts go against one’s personal views and particularly if they contribute to the betterment of society or the well-being of others (especially family members).
So which view is right? That’s difficult to say, since both are fundamentally governed by beliefs, the building blocks of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these tools to manifest the reality we experience. And, since conscious creation makes essentially anything possible, there’s no single answer that is intrinsically right or wrong. For those of us in the West, the individualistic perspective is most likely preferred, while Easterners may invariably opt for the collective view, regardless of what issue is up for consideration. Neither is inherently right nor wrong; they’re just different, and each is made equally possible by the manifestation process.
No doubt adherents to each view will argue in favor of his or her perspective, and each would likely make good cases for the beliefs that underlie their outlooks. A Western individualist, for instance, might say that disclosure would provide a terminally ill patient with the knowledge to decide how he or she wants to spend whatever time is left, be it for getting affairs in order, saying what needs to be said to loved ones or even fulfilling items on a bucket list. At the same time, someone with an Eastern perspective who believes in sparing someone’s feelings might contend that such knowledge could be unduly deflating, plunging a dying individual prematurely into the depths of despair and ruining whatever time is left, perhaps even derailing any efforts aimed at fulfilling the foregoing goals.
By contrast, those who believe in shielding the infirmed might argue that this practice can help preserve the attitudes of those with a positive mood, a particularly valuable asset for those looking to make the most of their lives, regardless of whether or not they’re aware of how much time they have left. Indeed, some might say, “Why upset Grandma if she’s enjoying herself? Maybe her happiness will prolong her time with us.” However, the devil’s advocates out there could say this is akin to a cruel, patronizing joke, one in which condescension is the impetus behind such efforts. Such opponents might claim that this is essentially saying “There, there, don’t worry, you’re going to live forever anyway.”
As these examples illustrate, there are good arguments – and reservations – on both sides, and each have their own particular validity. We should remember, though, that the affected individual has his or her own say in the matter as well; after all, we each create our own reality, and our own belief input will ultimately be most determinative. We will be the ones who determine our outcomes, so our own beliefs will carry the greatest weight. One need only look to Nai Nai’s belief in her perfect health to see how it not only affects her attitude, but also her physical constitution. For someone with Stage 4 lung cancer, she certainly seems remarkably vital, a result that undoubtedly arises from her resolute belief in that notion.
However, this is not to suggest that “outside” input won’t factor into matters. The impressions they leave on us will invariably help to shape our beliefs. So, if we hope to impact the intents of others, we had better make sure we’re sincere in our efforts, for others may well sense its absence. This becomes apparent, for instance, when Nai Nai questions the long faces and somber attitudes of her family members at what should be a happy occasion. If the integrity required to make this believability work is absent, all bets could be off.
This scenario also provides an intriguing look at co-creation, where our collective efforts combine to bring about a particular result, no matter what contributions we each make toward realizing the eventual outcome. There’s naturally the group effort put forth by the extended family, all of whom are working toward what they believe are Nai Nai’s best interests. And then there’s the matriarch’s own individual endeavors, most of which would fundamentally seem to mirror the intents of her relatives, even if driven by a different set of manifesting beliefs. In sum, though, they’re all working toward Nai Nai enjoying a happy and fulfilling life, no matter how much time she may have, and, in the end, that’s what really counts. With that at work, we may even surprise ourselves at just how much success we can achieve.
Director Lulu Wang’s excellent comedy-drama about how to handle an impending family tragedy is one of the most capably made, thoroughly satisfying films of this or any other year. With excellent performances by Awkwafina and Shenzhen Zhou and a superb, smartly written script, the picture takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster, from laughter to tears to heartfelt warmth and back again. There’s so much to like here that it’s difficult to get one’s hands around everything it has to offer. Let’s hope this one is remembered come awards season.
Billed as being “based on an actual lie,” “The Farewell” presents a thoughtful look at difficult and touchy questions, many of whose answers might not be as definitive or clear-cut as many of us would like to believe. It gives us much to ponder, not only for circumstances like this, but also in realizing that there may be multiple approaches available for addressing any kind of difficult situation. By taking a reasoned, open-minded approach to such scenarios, we may find we have a variety of options open to us to arrive at the best, most satisfying outcomes, and who could argue with that?
Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.