Lulu Wang's The Farewell movie is supposed to be "based on an actual lie" - but while much of it is true, The Farewell true story has had some changes. Written and directed by the Chinese filmmaker, The Farewell casts rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina in her first leading role as Billi, a Chinese-American student playing a form of Wang herself. Throughout the movie, she struggles to navigate between her conscience and her family's whims once she finds out that her beloved grandmother – or Nai Nai – has been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Alongside the Crazy Rich Asians star are also Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Han Chen, Yongbo Jiang, and Hong Lu, Wang's own great aunt who portrays herself in the movie.
The Farewell's central conflict involves the East/West culture clash that sprouts from Nai Nai's illness. Initially, Billi's own parents keep the diagnosis a secret from her, thinking that her emotional, Americanized personality would get in the way of the Chinese tradition to keep the victim ignorant – never allowing them to know that they are a victim. Instead, Nai Nai's family comes up with a plan to stage a wedding for Billi's cousin, though, in reality, the service will act as a farewell gathering for Billi's grandmother. The Farewell fuses comedy and tragedy as Billi, who disobeys her parents and hops on a plane to China, and the rest of Nai Nai's family scramble to keep up the facade. Appropriately, in bringing Wang's own experience to the big screen, The Farewell engages in some creative deception of its own, though a great deal of its events are real.
For example, in such severe cases, this sort of manipulation is not only a common practice in China, but it is a legal one as well. While it's beyond taboo in the United States for a doctor to withhold information from a patient – something one of Nai Nai's doctors not only does, but prescribes – the Chinese culture firmly believes that mental and emotional health form a direct link to physical health; as one character explains in The Farewell, people don't die from cancer, they die from the fear.
It is with that mentality that the grandmother's family proceeds; as the sight of an ailing loved one would be too much for any of them to bear. But in depicting the charade wedding, The Farewell took a comedic liberty. While it is true that Wang's cousin was involved, he had actually already married his Japanese bride before Nai Nai's diagnosis; the newlyweds were planning a celebration in China the next year, but upon hearing the news, decided to change the date to ensure Nai Nai could attend. As The Farewell's final moments reveal, Nai Nai could have actually made it another year – in fact, she could have made it to the party a couple of years late. Remarkably, six years after her initial diagnosis, Wang's grandmother is not only still alive, but she still doesn't know that she has cancer.
Of course, Wang couldn't keep it a secret that she was making a movie – especially when Nai Nai's actual sister was co-starring – but with Hong Lu's help, they have managed to keep those incriminating details from The Farewell out of Nai Nai's hands for the better part of a year. Fortunately, the nearly 90-year-old woman doesn't know the name of the film, as the Chinese title is Don't Tell Her.