Many films claim to be based on a true story. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is “based on an actual lie.” In truth, The Farewell is based on many lies—not just one—yet it does not play as an indictment of any of the characters, or the particular cultural tradition in question. Rather, the whole thing comes across as a sincere meditation on the notion of lies, and whether some lies are indeed harmless.
Billi’s grandmother “Nai Nai” is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Billi thinks the family ought to tell her but Chinese culture discourages this. The entire family—aunts, uncles, cousins—returns to China to pay their final respects, under the pretext that they are gathering for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao’s wedding. The lie is not borne out of malice or denial. Rather, Billi’s relatives believe they are helping Nai Nai by coping with the sadness on her behalf.
However, not all of the lies can claim to be so noble. Some are motivated by denial, shame, avoidance of judgment. And as this thoughtful comedy/drama unfolds, we see the fallout of any culture that values convenient lies over hard truth: When lies become (part of) the norm, how is one to discern truth from lies, harmless or otherwise?
Surprisingly, in the midst of all of this, there is some interest in getting at certain truths. Billi’s emotionally distant mother emerges as the most honest of the bunch. She sees that Billi’s life is based on lies, and refuses to buy into them. When confronted with the truth of her situation in the film’s opening act, Billi threatens to stop visiting her parents. However, over the course of the film, the tense relationship between mother and daughter undergoes a subtle shift. Some things are said that needed to be said, and there is most certainly more work for them to do, but it is nonetheless satisfying to know the work has begun.