Friday, September 13, 2019

Hailing “The Farewell”

It’s not often that I consult a doctor immediately after seeing a movie. But Lulu Wang’s new Sundance crowd-pleaser, The Farewell, inspired me to take aside a good friend who’s a specialist in internal medicine. I wanted to ask about issues the film has raised. Namely: what is the latest thinking on keeping the bad news from patients who’re facing a fatal diagnosis?

As I had suspected, American doctors still feel that patients are entitled to know their prognosis, no matter how grim it might be. But The Farewell, based on Wang’s own family story, takes us to China.  There, in the small city of Changchun, relatives go through an elaborate charade to keep a beloved grandmother (called Nai Nai or “Grandma”) from learning that her nagging cough is a symptom of a lung cancer that will probably kill her in a matter of months. As an excuse to reunite members of a far-flung family, a cousin living in Japan is going to marry his longtime girlfriend in Changchun, with a schmaltzy Chinese celebration to follow. Through cunning and downright subterfuge, family members keep results of medical tests away from Nai Nai, and manage to maintain the joyous mood of the wedding, even when their hearts are breaking at the impending death of their beloved matriarch.

“The Farewell” started out as a story told by Wang on This American Life. In discussing her large family’s strategy for handling end-of-life issues, she focuses on herself and her role as both Chinese and American:  "I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit. That's just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures." In the film, her character—named Billi—is a struggling would-be writer adrift in New York City. Emotional by nature, and deeply attached to her grandmother across the sea, she is told by her deeply-troubled parents to stay away from the wedding and its presumed aftermath. She comes anyway, and finds herself fighting to keep up the fiction that this reunion is a wholly joyous one.

Billi is played by Awkwafina, the spunky Asian-American rapper who proved her comic chops in both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Here her role is far more serious, and she handles it with grace. But the movie truly belongs to Zhao Shuzhen as the indomitable Nai Nai. Her Chinese-language performance is so spirited and so lovable that it’s easy to understand why the family dreads her loss, and why she seems able to defy her illness in the face of this unexpected family gathering.

The tail-end of this film contributes a note of hope that is most welcome, in light of what has gone before. But the truth is that I wasn’t quite as blown away as I’d hoped to be. The rave reviews for The Farewell had me convinced that its quiet charms would build toward a powerful climax. Instead, the movie amiably meanders, without giving us much in the way of tension or surprises. Still, I can agree that it’s a triumph for Wang to have escaped the demand of many potential backers that this very Chinese story include white characters, and probably a love interest too. .

By the way, medical deception may work for this Chinese family, but my doctor friend is sure that most patients want—and need—to be clued into their pending fate. When well-meaning family members keep bad news from them, they figure out the truth for themselves, leading to yet more pretending.

No comments:

Post a Comment