Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell starts with the statement, “Based on a true lie.” It’s a clever way to catch the audience’s attention, but it’s also accurate. The movie, in which a Chinese family intentionally chooses not to share the information of their Nai Nai (grandmother’s) terminal cancer diagnosis with her — keeping Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) in the dark to avoid causing her anxiety about her approaching death — is a lightly fictionalized version of events that happened to the writer/director’s own family.
In fact, lying to family members about fatal diagnoses isn’t uncommon in Chinese culture, as a doctor informs the Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina), Wang’s fictional surrogate, when she asks him about the morality of her family’s decision. It is, he tells them “a good lie,” a lie told for the sake of sparing another person’s pain.
The Farewell deals with the irony of that statement, “a good lie,” as well as the differences in worldview between the Americanized Billi, her parents, and their family members who still live in China. The film challenges Western beliefs about familial and individual responsibility, as well as the often-unrecognized personal sacrifices we make for the ones we love.
When Billi first learns of her family’s decision not to share Nai Nai’s diagnosis with her, she struggles with it. The family has planned a quickie wedding for her cousin and his girlfriend as an excuse for the family to see Nai Nai one last time, but Billi’s parents encourage her to stay home. One look at Billi’s face, they tell her, and Nai Nai will immediately know what’s up.
Billi goes to China anyway, and grudgingly goes along with her family’s lie. “What if she has things to take care of?” she asks them about Nai Nai. “What if she wants to say goodbye?” The family’s answer to those questions, it turns out, is complicated. America prizes individualism and independence, but Eastern cultures, Billi’s family tells her, believe that a person’s life belongs to the community, not just themselves. By not telling Nai Nai she’s dying, the family is effectively shouldering the emotional burden of her death for her. This way, Nai Nai can live a happy, normal life for as long as possible, free from fear.
It’s a compelling argument that poses an interesting ethical question. Sunday school morality tells us that lying is wrong. The Ten Commandments teach us not to bear false witness, after all. Of course, the reality is more complicated. Other areas of the Bible do contain examples of “good lies.”
In Joshua, Rahab lies to the soldiers of Jericho while hiding Joshua’s spies. In 1 Samuel, Jonathan lies to Saul, his own father, about David’s whereabouts to protect him. Neither are lies that directly benefit the person telling them, and neither are negatively judged. They are told to help other people or causes, which turn them into acts of courage and friendship, respectively.
That same strain of morality, lying as a sacrifice for the greater good, is what powers The Farewell. Giving up one’s own wellbeing for the good of another isn’t just limited to this example in the film. We also see it when Billi learns that, before she and her parents immigrated to the U.S., her parents would save their rationed eggs to give her, sacrificing their own comfort to make sure she was taken care of.
Billi believes in her own independence, but she also must learn that she isn’t totally her own person. Her parents have invested themselves in her, going without so that she could flourish. Similarly, Nai Nai has allowed her own children and grandchildren to leave China, going without their presence in her life, because she knows doing so will allow them to flourish. Letting her live out her life in peace is the family’s way of giving back to her.
Rogert Ebert once described the movies as “a machine that generates empathy.” The Farewell lovingly lives into that metaphor: Wang presents audiences with a seemingly cut-and-dried ethical situation, then asks us to reconsider it through a different cultural lens.
The journey, which we take alongside Billi and, by extension, Wang, who lived it, requires us to rethink how we understand our own independent identity, and what we owe to those who helped give that identity to us. Sometimes, it means we return that favor by helping shoulder another’s burden. Sometimes it means taking that burden away completely, through any means possible.