Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” opens with, “Based on an actual lie.” Billi, a broke artist in Brooklyn, played with precision and subtlety by Awkwafina, is the only one in her family who wants to tell her beloved nai nai (Chinese for paternal grandmother) the truth: she has stage-four cancer and her children and grandchildren, all of whom immigrated decades ago to America and Japan, are reuniting in Changchun under the pretense of a wedding so they can see her one last time.
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Like Billi, one day I was a child playing in my nai nai’s garden, and the next I was suddenly ripped away from everything and everyone I knew and plopped into a foreign land where I had no language, identity, family or home. Over time, I rebuilt the first two, and still I search for the rest. There’s the immediate lie and then there are the deeper lies behind the lie. Billi’s parents have not only lied to nai nai, but they’ve lied to themselves. The most brutally honest moment of the film happens when Billi breaks down in front of her mother about their immigration to America, “I wanted to believe you, that it was a good thing, but all I saw was the fear in your eyes.” The few good childhood memories she has left are of her summers at nai nai’s house. Wang captures all the sorrows and sweetness of how it feels to return to a home that is in grave danger of existing only in memory.
After my parents watched the film, they called me to say that they loved it, but they couldn’t imagine someone who wasn’t Chinese caring about this story. Though they didn’t say it outright, I understood — they had spent their whole lives in a country that never cared about them, never found them interesting, worthy or complex. But as “The Farewell” has exposed, that too, turned out to be based on an actual lie.
Jenny Zhang is the author of the story collection “Sour Heart.” She’s currently adapting it into a feature-length film with Cathy Yan for A24.