The most significant theme I see at work in the script and movie is the story’s central conceit: Lying to Nai Nai by keeping her in the dark about her terminal cancer. Beyond this Big Lie, there is lying going on all over the place in this story (listed here pretty much in chronological order):
- Billi lies about how well she’s doing as a writer in NYC
- Billi lies that there are no worries about how she paid for the airplane ticket to China
- Nai Nai orders everyone to lie about that Hao Hao and Aiko have been dating for a year to avoid scandal that they are getting married too quickly
- Billi lies about her rejected fellowship application
- Nai Nai lies to Billi about her sudden hospital visit, only there to pick up medications
- Doctor Song and Billi lie to Nai Nai about what they’re saying in English
- Revealed: Nai Nai lied to her husband — Billi’s grandfather — when he had cancer, not telling him until the very end
- Haiyan lies about smoking cigarettes
- Billi changes the X-ray test results to read “benign”
Of course, there may be another lie at lay in the story: Does Nai Nai actually know she is dying? It feels that way to me and she is putting on a happy face to help make the wedding a joyous affair.
What lies behind the lying, the rationale, really cuts to the core of the story and that gets laid out in the scene (67–69). From the scene-by-scene breakdown:
“In America, one’s life belongs to oneself. In the East, life is part of a greater whole, including family and society. He further points out that Billi’s motivation to reveal to Nai Nai the truth is because she feels too much responsibility carrying it, and that once she tells her, she won’t have to feel guilty anymore. The reason why the family refuses to tell her is that the family has accepted its responsibility to carry this emotional burden for Nai Nai.”
It’s a cultural thing. Thus, Billi’s journey is in part her learning to lean into her Chinese heritage as the story progresses. Each time she doesn’t tell the truth and remains complicit in the Big Lie, the more she edges toward embracing her cultural lineage.