Wednesday, July 24, 2019

"The Farewell"

"The Farewell" is a movie about a Chinese American family that returns to China for a quickly planned wedding that is actually an excuse to gather the family as the matriarch has a terminal cancer diagnosis. The family has decided not to tell Nai Nai (as most of them call her) so she thinks they are all just there for the wedding. 
The movie looks at families, at lies, and at how when your family lives apart it feels like so much has changed every time you come back. I found it wonderful even if there were things I wish I had answers to, it is a love letter to families and the lies we tell to keep our loved ones from worrying. 
I saw a snippet of one review that called it an absurd premise, and I want to address that specifically. Personally, my family called me to tell me my grandfather died after his funeral. I was off in college, they figured it would be tough for me to get home, so just easier to let me focus on college and let me know later. 
I watched the Lorraine Hansberry documentary and yes, I was upset when I got to the part where her estranged husband and her doctor decided that telling her about her stomach cancer would only upset her, so they just didn't. (Also, it's a great documentary. If you prefer your non-fiction in book, Imani Perry, who also appears in the documentary, has Looking for Lorraine.)
So, there's these real life examples. Second, the movie addresses this. They tell the old story about the wife who tells her husband to soften the blow when telling her the cat died while she was away. They show lots of the little lies we routinely tell family because arguing long distance that you really don't need a hat never succeeds, so you just say, of course I'm wearing a hat. And when Billi asks Nai Nai what those sounds are (and they are the hospital announcements) she says oh, nothing. Throughout the movie the small lies we tell our family members, I'm fine, of course I quit smoking, and so on, come up. If you drank every time someone lied to a family member in this movie, it would be unsafe. 
But that's what I found so affecting and real about this movie. Yes, I'm American or individualistic enough that I can't imagine doing this. Yes, a doctor lying to their patient is now illegal in the US. But have I smiled and told my family everything was fine when I was worried about a job or various other things but didn't want to burden them with my worries? Of course I have. (Oh and if my family is reading, I am fine, and I am of course only talking about things that happened a really long time ago. Please don't worry.)
And in the end "The Farewell" does what a lot of stories do, takes something that depending on your background may seem unusual, places it squarely in the middle of a family event that is familiar across cultures. In the end it is about family members who love each other and don't want anyone to worry more than they have to. Nothing about that seems absurd to me.