Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhao shine in ‘The Farewell’
If a family member — say a spouse or grandparent — is diagnosed with terminal illness, should you tell the person?
I dare say most Americans would answer, “Duh! Of course you should!”
But a new foreign-language movie called “The Farewell” shows how and why Chinese culture feels otherwise; it’s a beautifully acted lesson in learning to accept a different set of beliefs.
The young Asian actress Awkwafina plays Billi, only child of Chinese immigrants; born in China but raised in America, Billi still has family in Changchun — especially her beloved grandmother (her “Nai Nai”), who has stage four lung cancer.
Both Nai Nai’s sister and her grown children wish to keep this hidden from the aging matriarch; yet they also want to see her again. So a hurried wedding is arranged for one grandchild, in order that the whole family can gather one more time in China without revealing how sick Nai Nai is. Since Billi tends to wear her heart on her sleeve, her parents don’t want her to come, lest she give away the secret.
I’m going on public record here and now: If I am terminally ill, I want to know! Yet despite these feelings, it’s fascinating to watch Billi come around to the Asian approach — and the ending suggests it was by no means a foolish choice. At the same time, writer-director Lulu Wang — who based the story on events in her own family — shows that a superficial insistence on “everything is fine” has crept into many other relationships and interactions in the film; and this isn’t always healthy.
Wang emphasizes the tension between competing realities by constantly conducting conversation while something awkward or comical is running in the background; and many of these have to do with struggling to keep up appearances (fumbled wedding photos, undressing a passed-out drunk, staring vacantly through a cosmetic mask). The film has many other funny moments, including a graveside argument about smoking that is truly LOL.
Awkwafina, who was so great as the eccentric Peik Lin in “Crazy Rich Asians” — and who currently has six movies and two TV shows in the works — is simply marvelous as Billi; she is nearly the best thing about this movie. I say “nearly” because the young performer is matched step for step by the delightful Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai. “The Farewell” features a host of other fine supporting work, and ample opportunity for Wang to demonstrate that Asians, who sometimes seem unduly reserved, can also wear their heart on their sleeve.
Even when they’re trying to keep a secret.