Could you keep a secret at all costs from a family member or some other loved one from your life who was diagnosed with a terminal disease but didn’t know? That’s the very premise of a very emotionally heartstring pulling movie titled “The Farewell” starring Awkwafina as Billi and written and directed by Lulu Wang.
The film begins with Billi living her life far away from her roots in China in downtown New York City when she receives a phone call from her grandmother, who she affectionately refers to as her Nai Nai (played by Shuzhen Zhao). It’s obvious how close the two of them are, even though they haven’t seen each other in person in a long while. That’s all about to change though when Billi discovers from her parents, who actually brought Billi from Changchun, China some 25 years ago to America, that her Nai Nai has stage 4 lung cancer and has been given less than three months to live. Due to a Chinese tradition, the family has opted not to tell Nai Nai the truth about her health and instead decide to carry the burden for her. Chinese culture believes it’s far better for the person who’s diagnosed not to know, as it tends to make their remaining days on Earth far more positive. Nevertheless, everyone from Nai Nai’s family is in on the secret except for her of course and a wedding has been quickly arranged to bring the whole clan together under a much more hopeful pretense rather than a saddened one. Unfortunately, Billi is asked not to go by her parents because they don’t think she can keep the secret, yet Billi is determined to go anyway. Can Billi ultimately hide her sadness and spend a few of her Nai Nai’s remaining days connecting as they always do? That indeed becomes Billi’s greatest dilemma and hardest challenge she’s had to face in her life yet.
Watching this movie made me realize just how different Chinese culture is from our own. Here in America, the idea of keeping a terminal cancer diagnosis from the patient themselves seems utterly preposterous. Yet, in Asian culture, not knowing about a terminal diagnosis has actually proven to have beneficial effects on the patient, and in some cases led to much longer times of survival. I get that completely, as I can absolutely promise you that if I was diagnosed with a terminal illness and told I had very little time left, I’d probably just give up and crawl into my shell until I moved on from this plane of existence. On some level, that’s precisely why I don’t go to doctors anymore, because the news they always gave me did nothing but make me depressed and leave me with very little room for hope. That’s why I’ve lived with chronic pain for so long without doctor intervention because my hope has absolutely superseded what doctors first told me years ago.
Regardless, I’m not sure if I could keep a secret from say my partner Chris if his family suddenly told me they knew he had a terminal disease, but he didn’t. It’s not that my words would break the secret and bring the truth out though. It’s more like I don’t think I could hide the pain of it from my face or stifle the tears. I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve, which is precisely the battle Billi faces throughout the film.
“The Farewell” is mostly spent in subtitles and truly explores Eastern culture in a way that felt extremely genuine. It really helped me to understand just how different the Chinese-American culture is from the Chinese culture itself and kudos to Lulu Wang for creating such an authentic film on every level. There wasn’t a single moment where I felt like I was watching people acting, as more so it was as if I was watching the tragic events of a terrible diagnosis unfold before my eyes with a closely-knit family who truly loves and supports each other in ways I’m not sure I ever could. I fully expect this movie will garner a few awards season nominations when it arrives and I definitely give it five stars.
Peace, love, light, and joy,
Andrew Arthur Dawson