"The Farewell": How certainty collapses
How Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” shows us with humour and honesty how certainty collapses — and when and why it should collapse
The question is this: Is knowledge of reality worth more than pleasure? Or, more poetically, is a beautiful lie preferable to an ugly truth?
Imagine with the philosopher Robert Nozick that there is a machine that can give you exactly the life you desire. You plug yourself into the technology and live out, in your mind, every pleasurable experience you could think to programme into the machine, absent any and all negative orthogonal costs and consequences that would result from such hedonism in real life.
The physical being you most likely think of as “you” would be hooked up to the machine with no awareness of it once you have connected. Your mind, meanwhile, would enjoy wave after unending wave of pleasure derived from the perfectly convincing illusion of swimming with whales, eating the most orgasmic burger ever crafted by chefs, listening to the greatest orchestra play your favourite Bach actually conducted by Bach himself, and all between bouts of rampant, tireless sex – if any of that is your thing. Programme the experience precisely as you’d like it. This is, after all, your life now indefinitely.
The question this raises is: Would you actually get into the machine and live out the rest of your life in this way?
But the question I really want to put to you is this one: Would you put someone you loved in the machine without their knowing? Imagine they are suffering through some crisis-of-life induced misery: mourning the loss of a spouse, depressed clinically or as a result of failing in a career, or struggling to cope with a permanent paralysis or loss of limb that fundamentally changes their existence. Now, would you wait until they slept, programme the machine to offer your loved one a perfect life, and hook them up into it so they will “wake” into a bliss they do not question but simply enjoy?
This is, in essence, the question at the heart of 2019’s The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s dazzling and destabilising story – inspired by her own family life – about the “experience machine” that is the lie a whole family tell one of its members to protect her from a painful reality, cocooned in ignorant bliss.
Chinese-American Billi has a close relationship with her grandmother, Nai Nai. This bond is maintained across continents with the kind of “white lies” families use to keep sanity intact and bloodshed to a minimum, such as “I love what you’re wearing” and “I don’t hate your singing”. The truth, we and Billi discover, is that Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer that Nai Nai knows nothing of – her sister received the diagnosis from the doctor and pretends there is no illness, so that Nai Nai can better enjoy her remaining months. The family agree to act as if they are visiting Nai Nai in China for a wedding (also part of the fabrication) for Billi’s cousin.
But Billi isn’t initially supposed to be a part of this tragic farce; her family aren’t convinced she has what it takes to suppress her rampant emotions and maintain the lie, that rather than being discovered hiding behind the curtain, she will leap out willingly to confess that there is no Emerald City and that she and her family are fakes. This inability to deceive is seen by her family as a failure of maturity, though I suspect many Western audiences will see it as an admirable commitment to truth. The Farewell, however, isn’t going to let us have it so easy. By the time I walked out of this film, eyes more than moist and heart full to breaking point, my certainty had been shed.
CLOSE BUT NOT QUITE
The Farewell is Cartesian in its conviction that hyperbolic doubt, or radical scepticism, about what we think we know is the only way to know anything – assuming anything can be known at all. The movie isn’t interested in moralising, or pedagogy, or taking sides in a cultural battle between the individual and the collective, East and West, or America and China. The Farewell is a question; it is an exploration; it is a thought-experiment full of heart. Most of all, it is a challenge.
I had the relatively rare experience while watching The Farewell of not being able to cogently express – to myself – what I thought of what I was seeing. I mean this primarily at an aesthetic, cinematic level. Some portion of my mind was running background software to calculate whether I liked the movie or not. The acting was compelling, with every actor giving a performance it is impossible to look away from, with a restraint you wouldn’t expect from such an emotionally charged story. The dialogue is honest and direct, and it captures so much with so little, expressing universals in the cadences and rhythms of the way this particular family speaks. I particularly bristled with admiration (for the writing) and empathic frustration (the empathy for Billi, frustration at Lu Jian, her mother) during this brief exchange:
LU JIAN: How many wontons you want? BILLI: Five. LU JIAN: Five? That’s not enough. BILLI: Make a dozen then. LU JIAN: [A pause] Ten’s good.
Many of us, Canadian, Chinese, British, whatever, recognise the unspoken sniping here: Too few and something’s wrong with you, too many and you’re greedy.
Against this, my mental software was calculating another set of data, which included my feeling oceans apart from the movie and its characters. Even as I enjoyed the acting, and appreciated the honesty of the familial interactions, and was impressed by the dialogue, I felt as if I were being held at arm’s length at all times. I was close enough to see beauty but distanced enough to feel cold to it.
It’s all to do with the straight-jacket control Wang has as director over the camera. We are rarely shown any scene in anything other than a medium-wide shot, so that everyone feels almost within touching distance and yet just a little too far away. And frequently, characters are surrounded by the pressing bodies of others and yet remain somehow separate – often by being the only person in full focus. Sometimes they are framed by the blurred figures of those in the foreground pressing in on the person squeezed into what remains of the shot. Once, most memorably, when Billi learns that her Nai Nai is dying, she faces the camera while her father keeps his back to us.
The camera almost never moves, presenting scenes to us baldly, as if to say, “Here it is, here’s the objective account of what’s going on.” We are stood still, watching without moving, witnessing without reacting through tracking shots, zooms, or camera pans and tilts. All of this made me feel uncomfortably distant from what I was seeing, a little like listening to an impressive guitar solo: the technical proficiency is undoubtedly there and impressive at an intellectual level, but the heart is left untouched. Like a footballer playing keepie uppie – a nifty trick but not winning the game – there seemed to be something of a showcase quality to the film in its first two acts. And then Act Three kicked the stool out from under me.
AN INCREDIBLE MAGIC TRICK
During one literally and emotionally moving shot near the end of the film, as we peer out through the back window of Billi’s departing taxi at her Nai Nai standing in place, waving her final goodbye, I unexpectedly began sobbing.
It was in this moment that I realised how much I had been feeling all along, how wrong I had been to think that the film until now had remained static and had kept me at a distance. This was an incredible magic trick, a sudden reveal without any flourish. As the credits rolled, it seemed that asking myself whether I liked this film was incredibly short-sighted. The Farewell does not want you to love it or hate it any more than it intends to be a Chinese movie or American movie, a comedy or a drama, or any other clearly defined category.
The Farewell is brave enough as a film to allow its full weight to be felt only at its conclusion, so that what comes in the final act changes our perception of the earlier scenes. In feeling so far from the characters, so held at an emotional remove from what I was watching, I was being skilfully placed in Billi’s position. She is forced to keep herself restrained in order to maintain the lie, and I experienced the anaconda squeeze of this constriction, desperately hoping for the camera to spin or swoop, or for a character to have a big, dramatic moment full of tears and honest declarations, some sense of relief from this containment, some closing of the gap between my experience of the story and the story itself.
When we finally get something like this relief, it is parcelled out cleverly, and it is earned. The first time in the movie that I noticed real movement in-camera was halfway in, during a dinner-table debate about the relative merits of China and America. During this literal round-table discussion, the plates lining the inner circle of the table rotate slowly around as the conversation picks up steam. It is a tiny detail, but one so meaningful after almost an hour of feeling as if your shoes are glued to the spot.
The movie’s composer, Alex Weston, was deliberate in his placement of music. Suddenly hearing strings simply because “there’s 10 seconds of silence as we switch locations so let’s put a score in” was an ethos he rejected, as he told one interviewer. He didn’t use music to underscore anything – where there is a score, it is the “primary audio focus” and is “trying to bring something out of the characters that they can’t say themselves”.
Lulu Wang did something similar in her choice use of movement and narrative relief. The rotating food does not simply reinforce the debate being had within the family; it changes the very tone of it. Had the camera merely cut back and forth between speakers, we would have felt as if we were witnessing a more formal debate, and perhaps have been led to believe that one side might win. With the merry-go-round of plates in the foreground, however, we feel that this is one of those tedious familial arguments that will go round and round and arrive nowhere.
This circularity is brought back later, when the family play a drinking game at the cousin’s wedding (in reality a pre-emptive funeral). The family sit around a table, and the camera whips between them as they take their turns at a game and the groom, losing, takes shot after shot, becoming ever drunker. The camera whips around more frenetically, until it spins into a whirlwind blur. After so long of holding firm as a unit and towing the line on the lie, and – for us viewers – of watching this unfold in steady shots, when release comes with alcohol, it is dangerously excessive. The characters are showing each other that they are at ease, playing a game and having fun. The camera is telling us they are unstable and the lie is in danger of, like them, being unwound.
The final shot featuring movement that really hit me in the gut is the moment I mentioned earlier, in which Nai Nai waves goodbye to Billie – and to us – as Billi leaves in a taxi. The camera is looking backwards through the rear window, bouncing gently as the car rolls up the road, offering a natural dolly-out shot. We retreat from the shrinking figure of the waving grandmother, feeling our hearts swell, wanting to burst, tears rising – and then we have one of the most understated dramatic climaxes in cinema:
Nai Nai’s waving hand drops to cover her mouth. She is suppressing her own sob, a sadness we knew nothing of until that exact moment. And then the shot cuts and we are gone from that scene.
That’s it. A hand moving to a mouth. It broke me, and it cut through the analytical part of my mind that was waiting for a systematic calculation to provide me with a definite answer to what kind of movie this is, and whether it is Great Cinema or not, and whether I liked it or not. The Farewell, I realised, is more than answers like those can provide.
THE WRONG QUESTION
So how does all of this relate to the ethical question of telling someone a lie to shelter them from the truth? Well, I don’t think The Farewell is intended to answer such a question. The movie raises it only to show us something much deeper. The Farewell shows us how difficult grappling with such a question is. Which is to say, our convictions are undermined, and we see through our certainties, perhaps only temporarily, but enough to allow us to glimpse the greater truth:
No matter how different to our own choices the choices of others might be, no matter how wrongheaded in their conception or deleterious in their results, we are all striving towards the same goal of making things better.
Maybe I asked you the wrong question at the start of this essay. Perhaps the problem I presented – that of whether you would deceive a loved one to make them happy – misses the mark. Perhaps the better question is this: Do you think someone else who tells a beautiful lie to soothe sorrow is a moral monster for doing so?
Again, I don’t believe the answer is necessarily to be found in The Farewell, but what can be discovered is that, while a person’s choice may turn out to be right or wrong, and while your determination of the ethical grounding of such a choice may fall one way or another, the person can be separated from the lie they tell. Everyone in Billi’s family deeply loves and cares for Nai Nai. The decision to lie or tell her the truth ultimately comes out of that love. If it could be convincingly shown that lying harms or wrongs Nai Nai in some way, those who lie would immediately tell the truth, just as Billi comes to believe that lying might be best for her Nai Nai and so joins the deception.
The same truth holds for those who do not support all the causes you support, or don’t vote for the political party you vote for, or don’t attend the same religious gatherings to which you are a member; with the exception of extremists and psychopaths, almost no one chooses what they do to make the world worse. We are all trying to do our best, and some of us are misguided about the optimal ways to do our best. But people are not as easy as individual actions are to categorise as Good or Evil.
The question, finally, becomes this: What drives people to do the things we do for our closest and dearest? Here, The Farewell offers an answer at last: Love.
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• The Farewell, dir. Lulu Wang (2019)
• Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick (1974)
• “Behind the Music interview: The Farewell’s Alex Weston”, on www.hiddenremote.com (2019)