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Awkwafina stars as a grandchild with a secret

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A scene from the movie, “The Farewell.”
August 7, 2019 02:22 pm

For a textured and detailed depiction of middle-class family life in modern China, with plenty of wry social comment, caustic humor and sentiment thrown in, Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” is a near-classic comedy-drama.

Wang has an expressive cinematic style, and if its storytelling weren’t aloof at times, it would be an excellent drama laced with incisive comic surprises. As it stands, it is a fascinating and affecting movie, up to a point. That’s the point where it gets down to the obligatory business of smoothing out and resolving all the plot complications that Wang (who also wrote the script) piles up. Then the last third of the movie is a jumbled climax in which the characters undergo the usual self-realizations and truth-facing that are intercut with odd symbolism, such as birds that fly into a bedroom and, later, a hotel room.

The central drama of the movie is that of Billi (Awkwafina), a young woman in her 20s who moved from China to New York City with her parents when she was six. She struggles to pay her rent and misses out on a fellowship to the Guggenheim, where she planned to study music. Then, on the shattering discovery that her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shahzen), called Nai Nai, was diagnosed back in China with Stage 4 lung cancer and has three months to live, Billi wants to break the news to Nai Nai so that she can get her affairs in order and enjoy the short time she has left. But her family, steeped in Chinese tradition, insists on keeping it a secret from her and arranges a wedding (which was already planned) to take place as an excuse for the family to reunite once more to celebrate Nai Nai’s life. When Billi arrives in China, the family, including her mom and dad, are on pins and needles, fearing that she will spill the beans.

If the story construction had been simpler, the progression to the climax, which has character and force, would have been even more poignant. The unspoken desperation of loneliness and searching in a cold, friendless society for the emotional satisfaction that comes with solid family ties is brought out vividly through most of the movie. And the idea of a culture clash between the young woman raised in America and the rigorous old-world manners of the family rooted in China produces the movie’s dramatic tension and even some mordant humor. “The Chinese have a saying,” an uncle tells Billi. “When someone gets cancer, they die.”

Even in the flat period, Wang flashes the cinematic style of sharp observation and introspection of the characters that distinguishes the movie. She studies her characters, gives her actors plenty of room and surrounds them with rich and significant details. As a result, we see more human nature, more customs, both American and Chinese, and more emotion and personality than in most cross-cultural movies.

Awkwafina gives a deep, exhaustive portrait of a young woman tormented by frustration and the dread of a nameless future. Unarguably, Zhao measures up through her performance as the life-force Nai Nai. She is the motor that drives the picture. The actors who play the members of Billi’s family are remarkably good. They are a formidable bunch, and they convey the thoughts of Chinese discipline with barely a flicker.