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The Farewell: Moral Framing in Title Selection

Many great articles have been written about Lulu Wang’s The Farewell but none have gone deeper than a passing sentence into the translation of the film’s title. A lot of foreign films do not directly translate the title when moving from one market to another, and The Farewell’s is no exception as the direct translation of its Chinese title is “don’t tell her”. The two main reasons this is done is to choose a title that will better attract the new market or to avoid having the same title as a movie already released in that market. Movie titles, and titles in general, are the first thing that draws in an audience so plenty of thought goes towards the decision, which is why calling the movie The Farewell in English and Don’t Tell Her in Chinese is so interesting. It’s a choice that highlights the broad theme that runs through the entire movie: the differing moral systems between the two world worlds Billi’s family inhabits.

Photo by SAM LIM from Pexels

The name The Farewell focuses the movie’s English-speaking audience on the individual, and each individual’s personal farewell to the family’s beloved matriarch; the primary farewell emphasized is Billi’s, though we also get to see how various other family members deal with Nai Nai’s impending death. What gets highlighted then is not Nai Nai herself, but everybody’s personal relationship to her, because Nai Nai is the only one who does not know that she has terminal lung cancer. And what resonates most with Western audiences is Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai. Western viewers understand Billi’s deep desire and need to say goodbye to somebody she loves, and her bewilderment and frustration at not being able to do so. They empathize with Billi’s urge to reveal the truth of Nai Nai’s diagnosis and chafe alongside Billi at the oppressive restrictions of collectivistic Eastern society. All this is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s title.

Now consider the Chinese title, Don’t Tell Her. Here, Nai Nai features prominently, and the focus of the Chinese-speaking audience is drawn towards the collective. Instead of grappling with Billi saying goodbye to Nai Nai, they think about how the entire family is working together to try to conceal Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her. They ponder the burdens that have to be shared in a collectivist society and hope for a resolution that doesn’t tear the family apart. The change in title reflects the change in mindset and evokes a different framing.

Billi’s uncle, Haibin, has a beautiful speech that sums up the broad differences between the moral systems that govern the West and those that govern the East. It’s a theme that comes up over and over in the dialogue of the various characters, but in my mind, it all starts with the film’s title. Which makes me think, what am I missing when I watch other foreign films, and does it all start in the title?