To Lie or Not to Lie — “The Farewell” (2019)

7 mins read

If there isn’t much time left for the one you love, would you let them know? For some, an unhesitant “yes” seems to be the answer, yet the opposite may be the choice for people from a different culture. Based on a true story of the director’s life, “The Farewell” (2019, Lulu Wang) explores this moral dilemma through Billi (Awkwafina), a first-generation Chinese American, who disagrees with everybody else in her family on whether or not to lie to her grandmother who was diagnosed with cancer. The conflict builds up to a climax when a wedding is made up as an excuse for everyone to return home for the old lady. Being constantly hidden from her true health conditions, grandma remains the only one who keeps a light mood throughout the film.

To lie or not to lie, that’s the question — the film cleverly depicts the tension generated from cultural differences between the family members. The dramatic irony also adds a sense of comedy to the story. Similarly, tensions regarding different cultural expectations plague the film’s production process. While American producers objected to the all-Asian cast and insisted on adding prominent white characters, Chinese financiers thought the story was too American. In another attempt to draw attention to the project, Wang chose to adapt the story into a segment of an episode in the public radio storytelling program “This American Life” in April 22, 2016. Fortunately, the effort finally paid off. The radio program successfully intrigued the filmmaker Chris Weitz, who later stepped in to produce the film as well as procuring other financing for the project. 

As the winner of the Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance London Film Festival, The Farewell was sold for more than twice its budget for its worldwide distribution rights. The film has earned about five times its budget at the box office, which makes it both an artistic and a financial success. Yet interpreting it from a Chinese international student’s perspective, we found it hard to agree with the mainstream celebration of “The Farewell” in terms of content, cinematography and symbolization. 

When it comes to precisely showing cultural conflict and the characters’ awareness of cultural difference, Wang could have trusted the audience more: show, don’t tell. Wang’s attempt to show cultural conflicts is clear — Billi grew up in New York and mostly speaks English to her parents, yet her grandma can’t understand the language at all. The film is set in Changchun — a northern city far from being international, and thus the setting exacerbates the cultural and linguistic differences between the three generations. The cultural clash in this case is already deeply rooted in their daily interactions, ways of living, and ideology. However, the more subtle, lived-in details of culture clash do not extend beyond direct exposition: Wang did not embed and translate these elements into specific character habits or interactions, but instead chose to show them explicitly through repetitive lines: “We are Chinese. They are Americans. We are different.” Lines like these are reemphasized over and over just to hammer the message home.  Yet even if the American audience leave the movie theater with the deepest impression of how different the two cultures are, how many of them truly understand why specifically do those differences exist?

In terms of cinematography, Wang seems to favor the usage of slow-motion shots to portray the characters’ emotional expression, but this technique is sometimes misused or used inconsistently and thus it may confuse the viewers. Most of the movie is shot with normal-paced camera movement and cutting.  In one scene, however, where all the family members except grandma solemnly walk towards the camera while the sign of the hospital flashes in the background, the usage of slow-motion technically does underscore the heaviness of the lie within everyone’s mind, yet the dramatization seems to be jarringly overdone and inconsistent with the artistic style in other parts of the film. The inconsistency of camera language can also be seen with Wang’s choice of using a sparrow as a symbol for mental state within the film. At the very beginning, when the story still takes place in New York, we see a sparrow coming from nowhere appear in Billi’s room. When the film is halfway through, we see another sparrow in Billi’s hotel room in Changchun. To explain the meaning of bird symbolization, Wang states in an interview that the coincidence and the out-of-body experience lead to a connection of these two countries that are across the world from each other. This connection is meant to be more metaphysical, something we don’t see and something we cannot control. Meaningful as it is, the mere two shots of sparrows within the 138-minute film seem out of place during the viewing process, and they also make people wonder that if there were more repetitions of sparrows in other important timings, the entire metaphysical interpretation might be clearer. 

Cultural differences and clashes are themes worth exploring continuously. As Wang states in an interview: “I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit. That’s just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures.” From notable films exploring biculturalism — The Wedding Banquet (1993), Saving Face (2004), all the way to The Farewell — it is exciting to see the increasing appearance of works discussing this theme. It might also, however, be the time to get over the “what to show,” and move over to the “how to show.”

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Carrie Jiang

Carrie Jiang '21 is a film studies major and possibly Asian studies minor. She loves films, photography, and food.

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