Movie Review: Awkwafina cherishes ailing grandma in touching ‘Farewell’

August 14, 2019

“Hobbs & Shaw” and “The Lion King” are busy making bank at the summer box office, but if you want a more patient, original option, check out writer/director Lulu Wang’s new indie drama “The Farewell,” which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

If “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) allowed Asian viewers to finally see themselves on screen in a Hollywood blockbuster, “The Farewell” is a less glossy, more realistic opportunity.

“Based on an actual lie” first shared on public radio’s “This American Life,” the plot follows 31-year-old New York author Billi (Awkwafina), who receives word that her Chinese grandmother has cancer and doesn’t have long left to live. Her family agrees to keep grandma in the dark about the diagnosis, instead staging an impromptu wedding in Changchun, China so that all of the relatives can come to visit her one last time.

It’s a wonderfully subtle role for Awkwafina, who gained fame as a rapper before leaping to the big screen in “Ocean’s Eight” (2018) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018). In “The Farewell,” she shows her serious side by believably holding back her emotions. She essentially plays two roles simultaneously: the strong face she shows for her grandma, yet the true emotions that the audience knows she’s feeling underneath.

A similar acting challenge faces Tzi Ma (“Rush Hour”) as Billi’s father Haiyan and Diana Lin (“The Family Law”) as Billi’s mother Jian, who emote even less outwardly due to the norms of their generation. Of course, the real show-stealing performance comes from Zhao Shuzhen as grandma Nai Nai, who is as spry as ever, practicing her defiant martial arts battle cry in the backyard, while providing comic relief with repetitive graveyard bows.

If the subject matter feels personal, it’s because it comes from life experience. Born in Beijing, Wang emigrated to Miami at age six and remains fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese, which is how most of the dialogue is presented (with subtitles). The landscapes, first of New York subways and then a 24-day shoot in Changchun, feel fully lived in by a filmmaker herself exploring her own identity crisis of Eastern roots in the Western world.

For visual reference, cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano looked to “Still Walking” (2008), about a family coming together around their son’s death, and “Force Majeure” (2014), about a family vacation interrupted by an avalanche. Such natural disaster imagery is fitting as Wang opens on a painting of a still lake inside a volcano. When the painting again appears in the hospital waiting room, the symbolism is clear: a family maintaining the illusion of calm (still lake) amid a life-altering eruption (volcano).

Wang also makes symbolic use of mundane interiors, using the doorways of adjacent rooms to show three generations. In one scene, the mother stands in the foreground of a kitchen, Awkafina appears in the middle ground of a doorway, and the grandma stands in the background in a different room. As Awkwafina moves closer to the camera, she blocks her grandma entirely, foreshadowing what the world will look like after her death.

While such moments showcase Wang’s visual prowess, the dialogue displays her screenwriting chops, particularly a dinner scene where the family debates culture clashes with compelling nuance. “In the West, people live for themselves, but in the East, people live for their families and the larger good of society,” an uncle says. This is quickly countered by the fact that they’re still sending their kids to America for more opportunity.

Most impressive is how the script takes these cultural customs and applies them to larger themes regarding the human will to live. Not only do family members mislead Nai Nai, even the doctors lie about her prognosis. That might sound like malpractice in America, but as the mother explains, “There’s a saying in China: When you get cancer, you die.”

By the end, you’ll walk out of the theater contemplating whether our perception of our own mortality actually expedites the death process. Is it possible to lose the will to live? Might we live longer if we convince ourselves that we’re healthier than we actually are?

No matter how you answer that question, “The Farewell” will fill you with the same feeling as Yasujirô Ozu’s Japanese masterpiece “Tokyo Story” (1953). That is to say, you’ll want to immediately pick up the phone, call your grandparents and tell them how much you love them. Any movie that can do that is an unmitigated success in my book.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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