Just as my fear that my town's one and only (and less-than-stellar) theater wouldn't end up showing The Farewell, a movie I've been checking the showtimes weekly for since its release in the middle of July, reached its peak, my prayers were answered and I was able to catch a Labour Day matinee. It's probably a good thing I went and saw it alone, because if anyone had sat within my general vicinity they'd no doubt find their moviegoing experience hampered by my near constant sniffles, my failed attempts at shallow breathing (trying to mask the frog in my throat), and my probably concerning-yet-genuinely cathartic laughs at the film's many, many hilarious moments.
What I'm trying to get at is that The Farewell came to me at a moment where I truly needed to hear what it had to say. Because of this, it is impossible to separate the personal moment in time I was in when I saw it from the film itself, yet I implore each and every person with the opportunity to seek it out as it is without a doubt one of the greatest and most important films of the year.
While the premise of Lulu Wang's story is simple, its very nature brings to light many of the most complicated concepts of what it means to be a human with people in your life that you love. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American woman getting by in New York City, where she moved to with her parents when she was only six. Through the phone call in the opening scene we see how close and adorable her relationship with her grandmother Nai Nai is, and at the same time are introduced to the film's central theme of "good lies."
Nai Nai is dying from stage 4 lung cancer, and her family has decided that they are going to do everything they can to prevent her from finding out. Using the marriage of Hao Hao (Billi's cousin who moved to Japan) as a cover for everyone to come and visit Nai Nai, the bulk of the film is dedicated to presenting a group of people who are practically never together at the same time all coming together for their love of one woman. The universal power of this implication is what infuses every scene, line of dialog, and silent reaction with a symphony of melancholy, joy, heartbreak, love, hilarity, and selflessness. The film is consistently hilarious in how sweet and innocent Nai Nai is, even with the dramatic irony frequently causing the other members of the family to have to look away, choke down a gasp or even leave the room for a private cry. It's honestly miraculous how funny and uplifting the film is while always maintaining the undercurrent of upcoming loss.
Billi and Nai Nai are undoubtedly the leads, but only technically. One of the many, many beautiful aspects of this film is how its execution mirrors its message, in this case that in the East one's life is part of a whole. A majority of the time, Billi and Nai Nai are shown as part of their entire family, with all 10+ of them being squeezed into the camera's frame in ways that exude warmth and being at home. No matter one's culture or background, it's impossible to not see yourself and the members of your family in these people.
While the concept of "lying" to a family member by withholding the information that they are literally dying will be understandably met with confusion by many unfamiliar with the culture, The Farewell presents the reasoning behind doing so in such a powerful and humanistic manner that audiences won't even be thinking about the cultural differences by the halfway mark. In place of that difference is the universal understanding of the love held for one's family, and the sense of duty to do whatever one can to ease their pain. Haibin, Nai Nai's oldest son, puts it beautifully to Billi:
"It is our duty to carry this burden for her."
As the film plays out, anyone with half a heart will find themselves reflecting on their own relationships to those closest to them, especially parents and grandparents. When was the last time you really thought about how much your grandma might miss serving you plate after plate of her cooking even though you've told her umpteen times you're not hungry? How much do you really know about your own parent's life before you were around? What do you think it's been like for your grandparents to grow old without the company of their own children or grandchildren, save for those rare "special occasions?"
These are profoundly uncomfortable questions to ask oneself, yet continuing to deny them will only make the inevitable hurt of losing the ones you love that much more harrowing. There are many uncertainties and obligations in this life, but one of the true foundations one can count on to make things a little bit easier is the company of family and the ones you love. It's a truly sad thing how easy distractions dominate one's life, and not a single person on this planet is capable of resisting them. Still, we owe to ourselves and all those who care about us our company and honest expressions of what we truly mean to each other.