(This review originally ran during our coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The Farewell hits theaters on July 12, 2019.)
In 2018, rapper and actress Awkwafina broke out in a big way, delivering memorable turns in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Those two particular performances were indeed enjoyable and fun, but they also bordered on schtick – the actress was very much playing characters; individuals that felt cooked up primarily in the minds of screenwriters. In Lulu Wang‘s lovely, melancholy The Farewell, Awkwafina breaks out in a much bigger way with her first major role, creating a wholly realistic character, and revealing a talent for dramatic acting that you may not have realized she possessed. It’s an incredible performance.
And the film that performance is in is worth celebrating as well. “Based on an actual lie,” as an opening title card tells us, The Farewell finds Awkwafina playing Billi, a Chinese American woman who has a close long-distance relationship with her grandmother – her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) – who lives in China. Billi is out of work, and has just learned she was rejected for a fellowship. And things continue to take a turn for a worse: she discovers from her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) that Nai Nai is dying of cancer. In keeping with Chinese tradition, the family has decided to not tell Nai Nai she only has a few months to live – something that angers and confuses Billi. The entire family plans to gather together in China to see Nai Nai one last time under the guise of reuniting for the wedding of a cousin.
Despite, or perhaps because of, her attachment to Nai Nai, Billi’s parents don’t want her to come – they worry she’ll give the secret away. But Billi ignores their wishes, and ends up in China, where she struggles with her sadness at the prospect of losing her grandmother while trying to reconnect with her roots. As you might guess, none of this goes smoothly. On more than one occasion, Billi’s downcast glances threaten to give the game away. And she’s not alone – her father, Nai Nai’s son, is often equally morose. Billi and her parents have lived in America for years, and as a result feel most disconnected from the customs and the traditions they suddenly find themselves thrust back into.
This situation is rife for both comedy and pathos, and writer-director Wang balances them with a deft hand. The matter-of-factness with which certain members of Billi’s family address Nai Nai’s impending death often makes for dryly hilarious scenarios, yet these moments are always tinged with an unmistakable melancholy. Like Billi herself, The Farewell often gives off an air of sadness. You can feel it burning off the screen, lurking in the corners of the most laugh-out-loud moments, waiting to seep in. Wang’s direction is also key here. She allows Billi’s conflicted emotional state to play out in subtle, unspoken ways. And a few directorial touches linger: in one early scene, Billi finds a bird in her New York City apartment. She opens a window, hoping to get the bird – which is perched on a chair – it to fly out. But in the midst of all this, she receives a phone call from Nai Nai. Wang keeps the camera tight on Billi during the call, and the moment the call ends, the shot cuts wider to reveal the bird has departed, unseen and unnoticed by both Billi and the audience. Later in the film, Billi wakes in her motel room and has a glimpse of the ghostly presence of her grandfather, his cigarette smoke still lingering. Wang shoots this in quick cuts, leaving the scene up to interpretation – was the specter really there, or was this the tail-end of a dream?
The ensemble gathered here are delightful across the board. Zhao Shuzhen is charming and sweet as Nai Nai – it’s immediately easy to understand why her family clings so tightly to her. Tzi Ma, as Billi’s father, is often heartbreaking, saying so much while saying little. As Billi’s mother, Diana Lin lands some of the film’s biggest laughs with her bluntness, but she too has her own regrets, and feelings she keeps bottled up. Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, and Aoi Mizuhara all have their own individual moments to shine as members of the extended family.
But make no mistake, this is Awkwafina’s film. I don’t want to give the impression that I wasn’t a fan of the actress before this – it was clear she had a wealth of talent. But so much of that talent seemed devoted to playing broad caricatures that I wondered if she would ever expand her horizons. Here, she does that, and then some. While there’s still humor in her work in The Farewell, this is mostly a dramatic turn, and the actress carries the film on her shoulders. A scene near the climax, wherein Billi weeps while professing her sadness over her lost youth, and her lack of real connection to China and her extended family as a result of moving to America, is crushing in its raw openness. I know 2019 has just begun, and I know statements like this border on hyperbole, but to hell with it, I’m going there: this is one of the best performances of the year.
As The Farewell draws to a bittersweet conclusion, it risks tipping over into maudlin territory. But writer-director Wang pulls it back at just the right moment, bringing Billi’s journey around the world to a conclusion that may not be entirely satisfying, but feels absolutely real. The traffic in New York surges. Birds burst out of the branches of a tree in China. The world continues to turn, and the past is never really gone as long as we hold onto it.
/Film rating: 9 out of 10
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