The secretly dying character is a common theme in literature, film, and television. It’s so common, in fact, that the website “TV Tropes” features it among its Death Trope entries. From Albus Dumbledore’s concealing his terminal condition (in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) to Maude’s keeping secret her intention to kill herself (in Harold and Maude) to Shaun’s mother hiding her zombie bite from all the other sheep (in Shaun of the Dead), characters who know that they’re dying often try to protect those around them from the sadness that knowledge of their impending death will bring.
Recently, this trope was brilliantly inverted by The Farewell. In this heartwarming movie written and directed by Lulu Wang, rather than a character’s keeping others in the dark about her own impending death, the others keep the character herself in the dark about her own impending death. The character in question is Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), an elderly Chinese woman whose sister convinces her that the spots on her recent CT scan were merely “benign shadows”. But the truth is not so benign. As the scan reveals, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer and is expected to have just months to live.
In an effort to gather together relatives from across the globe one last time before Nai Nai’s death without raising her suspicions, the family concocts an elaborate plan that involves staging a wedding between Nai Nai’s grandson and his girlfriend. But as everyone prepares to travel to China for the wedding, they also decide to exclude one family member: Nai Nai’s granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), a first-generation Chinese-American woman struggling to make a living in New York. Worried that she won’t be able to keep her emotions in check and will thus somehow give up the ruse, her family leaves her behind. But Billi doesn’t want to miss out on the chance to see her grandmother one last time. She maxes out her credit card and joins the family in China. Though the secret keeping is not always easy, they all manage to get through the wedding and the visit without revealing the truth to Nai Nai. I won’t say more here about how it all wraps up, but it’s delightful to get glimpses of footage of the real-life Nai Nai during the closing credits. In the words of the filmmakers themselves, the movie is based on an actual lie.
As even this brief description of the storyline suggests, the movie – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant – raises deep ethical questions about interpersonal interactions in both the medical and the familial spheres. Though German philosopher Immanuel Kant famously condemned lying in all circumstances, most people find this view implausible. To use an example often mentioned in discussions of his view, what if Nazis were to come knocking on your door looking for the Jews that you have hidden in the attic? In such a circumstance, many people have the strong sense that lying would be not only morally permitted but morally required. Yet I suspect that many of the people who think that it’s okay to lie in this kind of situation (and perhaps in some other situations where doing so is necessary to bring about a seemingly better and fairer outcome overall) would still feel squeamish about lying to a competent adult about her own medical diagnosis. Perhaps we might be comfortable keeping bad medical news from a very young child who is afflicted, and perhaps we might be comfortable softening the news a bit and shading the truth when telling adult family members about their own medical conditions, but I’d bet that most of us in Western societies would not want to sign on to a plan that involves keeping a competent adult completely in the dark about her diagnosis. Doing so seems like a violation of her right to make her own decisions about the future. Absent information about her condition, Nai Nai cannot make choices about whether and to what extent she wants to undergo treatment, she cannot get her affairs in order, and she cannot say the goodbyes that she might want to say.
But here I say “Western societies”, and in fact, one of the lessons the film teaches us is that different societies have sharply different views on this matter. Though a Western perspective suggests that in treating Nai Nai as they did the family violated her autonomy, the Chinese perspective suggests that to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis would be to burden her unnecessarily. Wouldn’t it be better to let her live out her days in peace? And, as we learn late in the film, given that Nai Nai kept her own husband’s medical diagnosis a secret from him until he was on his deathbed, we seem to have some reason to think that this kind of secret keeping is something that she would condone.
So, if you were dying, would you want to know? It’s hard to leave The Farewell without having this question on one’s mind. Some audience members undoubtedly become convinced by the end of the film that Nai Nai’s family made the right decision. Others undoubtedly remain steadfast in their conviction that it was a mistake. But either way, the movie gives all of us plenty to contemplate amidst the laughter and the tears.