Cinefest: Comedy highlights casual deceit at the heart of a family

A scen from The Farewell, a gentle comedy that, as the opening credits reveal, is "based on an actual lie." It is the Thursday gala for Cinefest. Supplied photo jpeg, SU

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THE FAREWELL Cinefest gala, Thursday, 7 p.m. 3 ½ out of 5 Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhou Director: Lulu Wang Duration: 1 h 38 m


Lies, damned lies and cinema. Recently, liberal moviegoers were up in arms over the release of the anti-abortion film Unplanned on a handful of Canadian screens. And now there’s the release of the documentary Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies. But nestled in the middle is The Farewell, a gentle comedy that, as the opening credits reveal, is “based on an actual lie.”

The fib being told is what one might call a falsehood in the name of domestic tranquillity. The three most common are: “That looks great on you,” “I really enjoyed that meal,” and “No, really, that looks great on you.” (For the fourth-and fifth-most common, see Nos. 1 and 3.)

But in the story from writer-director Lulu Wang, it’s a bit more mendacious than whether your jeans fit. Billi’s grandmother has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. The family decides to keep the news from her. Grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) is of sound mind and, aside from the stage 4 disease, in good health.

But as Wang explains in an episode of the podcast This American Life on which the film is based, many Chinese families choose to keep bad medical news from their elders. There’s even a saying to the effect that cancer doesn’t kill people — news of the diagnosis does.

None of this sits well with Billi, played by Asian-American rapper and actor Awkwafina. Caught between her desire for truth and her need to keep peace in the family, not to mention grief at her grandmother’s illness, Billi is paralyzed with indecision.

Wang’s script has a lot of ground to cover, explaining numerous Chinese customs to the American market at which the film is clearly aimed. Some of this is awkward; there are no fewer than three long conversations on the topic of which country is better. But The Farewell works best when it lets its observations slide by quietly.

Note how Nai Nai is proud of the new hotel in Changchun, the northeastern city where she lives, but Billi finds it garish, and anyway, the elevator doesn’t work.

In order to gather the family to say goodbye to Nai Nai without her catching on, Billi’s dad (Tzi Ma) arranges a fake wedding between one of the nephews and his Japanese girlfriend. The potential for cultural clashes as guests arrive from all over the world could be played for broad farce, but Wang’s film is more philosophical than zany.

In fact, the faux bride and groom barely register, as the film concentrates on the relationship between Billi, her parents and her grandmother. It’s a thought-provoking trio — the American-raised millennial, the immigrant parents straddling two worlds, and the older generation left behind in the old country. It’s a dynamic that will resonate with many viewers.

Even more relatable, however, is the way we casually lie in the service of familial harmony. The opening scene finds Billi talking to Nai Nai on the phone from New York. Grandma worries that she’s cold. “I’m wearing a hat,” replies Billi, who is not. Then she hears hospital sounds in the background and asks where Nai Nai is. “I’m at your great-aunt’s house,” says the older woman, who is not.

The Farewell is the kind of film to see with someone close to you. If you do, and they love it, and you don’t, feel free to bend that truth just a little for their sake.