This must be brief, because the deadlines are stacked up and circling, to mix a metaphor. But I wanted to get something down in writing on this movie — comedy? drama? — before its immediacy faded and the feelings were gone.
Director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is based, as the opening title card says, on “an actual lie.” The grandmother is not told of her cancer diagnosis, on the family’s judgment, but instead her far-flung, but relatively small, family gathers at her home in China ostensibly for her grandson’s wedding but actually to tacitly say goodbye. Hovering over all the scenes and interactions is the question of whether the American branch of the family, steeped twenty-five years in a society of individual rather than familial/cultural responsibility, will spill the beans? Or will the grieving grandchildren, sternly shushed by their elders, turn their back on tradition and tell the truth to their beloved Nai Nai?
Nothing much happens over the course of the film’s three days as the wedding banquet is planned and attended. The focal character is granddaughter Billi, Nai Nai’s obvious favorite, as she interacts with her extended family in a handful of settings in a vast country. And, despite there only being rather gloomy and dour photos for The Farewell online, the film is actually filled with fun, and warmth, and teasing — not at all the mawkish impression a Google image search conveys. Oh yes, and lots and lots of food: plates and platters and bowls heaped full of fried and steamed comfort foods, painstakingly yet extremely matter-of-factly prepared.
But now to where it touched me. It’s the wedding banquet and the father of the groom, the older brother who lives in Japan, breaks down thanking his mother and reproaching himself for not having been there with her all these years. So it is he, after all, who is going to come closest to revealing the situation’s truth. He stops, overcome.
And I heard a sob in the theater.
Later, the entertainment and mingling in full swing, we see Billi’s mother with Nai Nai’s sister, asking her what she will do after the inevitable and inviting her to come to America, assuring her that they will drive her anywhere she wants to go. And she assents, and they smile, and you know none of this is going to happen, but that these are the kinds of things family and friends say when they get together at events like this — weddings, funerals — the world over. And it’s not wrong, and it’s not hypocritical, and it’s not sad, and it’s not poignant. It just is. And then I think I might have teared up a bit myself, thinking of a similar blithe promise made at a similar occasion, which can no longer be honored — and perhaps ruefully aware of many other such promises that will also no longer be able to be honored as the years pass.
So it’s a funny thing how this movie, with about a third of its dialogue in Chinese, and most of its action set a world away, so keenly evokes the most personal of remembrances. Brings to mind Sondheim’s Marie in Sunday in the Park With George: “Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?”