Directed by Lulu Wang
Starring: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin
It’s been a while since I’ve gone out of my way to see a film that didn’t feature super heroes, dog-loving hit-men, or giant atomic-breathing fire lizards but a chance to see Awkwafina flex her comedic and dramatic chops while supporting Asian American creative voices was too good to pass up in “The Farewell.”
Director Lulu Wang’s film, based on “an actual lie” that her family went through, is a mesmerizing bittersweet and often hilarious take on the cross section of immigrant family values and the love that holds it all together. It’s the kind of story that will make you want to hug your parents and relatives extra tight, while laughing your ass off and shows a new angle to the family dramedy through Asian American voices that Hollywood rarely touches on.
(Since I’m sure most of you NERDS don’t watch Indie films, here’s the trailer to get you up to speed.)
“The Farewell” tells the story of an Asian American woman named Billi struggling to find purpose in her life out in New York. When she learns that her Nai Nai (grandmother) is dying from cancer she is told she is forbidden from telling her about her condition as per Chinese tradition. Under the guise of a wedding for her cousin the family uses it as an excuse to get together to be with Nai Nai one last time but the secrecy does not sit well with Billi and now she finds herself struggling with keeping the truth as it slowly eat her inside.
The best thing about “The Farewell” is that it doesn’t choose a side in its East vs West dynamic that may feel apparent in the film’s trailer. In fact, it’s more closely East AND West when it comes to the message of the story. The film doesn’t aim to vilify Billi’s family for hiding the truth from their matriarch but rather simply state this is how it is in China. It doesn’t try to state that this is the right way of thinking either, of course, as plenty of the film’s dramatic frictions comes from this lie but the film balances this East and West ideology very well by ultimately choosing not to take a side and simply show how this family loves one another which is ultimately more important to its narrative.
Though the film has an ultimately tragic premise it is here that much of the movie’s great comedy comes from and often at hilarious levels. It doesn’t simply make comedic scenes take place between the family drama it actually melds the two perfectly as humor comes directly from the tragedy. Often while viewing this film in fact you might find yourself wondering if you should laugh or cry and sometimes, you’ll end up doing both and the film is better for it in this way.
(That look we all gave when we tried to avoid spoiling “Endgame” to friends a couple months ago before they got a chance to see it.)
The film does such a wonderful job of making good, bittersweet humor out of this familiy’s struggle with tip-toeing around the truth that you’ll simultaneously want to sympathize with them and laugh at/with them at the same time. The humor can be both outrageous, dry and sometimes even dark in this way and makes for a very complex viewing experience. It’s a great balancing act that projects both emotions in perfect harmony from start to finish that’ll have you crying from laughter and sadness.
It’s the cast though that makes all this work perfectly as they form a believable loving but slightly dysfunctional family from various parts of the world. Tzi Ma is great as Billi’s father who struggles in his own way with his Chinese principles and his newer American beliefs. Diana Lin reminds me almost too much of my own mother, who is both loving and haranguing toward Billi throughout the film. And Zhao Shuzhen will make you wish she were your grandmother as her undeniable charm keeps the story humming along at a delightful and loving pace.
But it’s Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) of course who shows off her impressive range here as both a dramatic and comedic talent that brings this all together here. Her catchy one-liners and star-making performance in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians” was one of the film’s big highlights and she’s no less charming in “The Farewell” as well.
Awkwafina carries this film as the audience’s primary western point of view but again it never turns to condescending of cultural traditions as our main character struggles internally throughout the film but never vilifies what is going on either. It’s a highly nuanced performance that shows Awkwafina’s star is indeed rising and deserving of recognition when awards season eventually rolls around.
(Side note: If I ever get famous I want to party with Awkwafina haha)
So, now it’s time for me to get on my soapbox again for a minute. If there was any doubt that diversity and showcasing minority artistic talents is important just look at all that’s changed in the wake of last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” I mean, just look at this picture of the theater I went to see this film at this past weekend.
It was a full house and it wasn’t even the showtime I originally wanted to see it at because the previous one had sold out too! And this wasn’t a crowd of predominantly Asian folk seeing this film; viewers of seemingly all backgrounds came out to see this wonderful family dramedy. It’s further proof that these films about the Asian American condition are relevant and more importantly have mass audience appeal.
On the surface a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” (especially compared to the complexities of this film) feels like a pretty standard rom-com but by getting it in theaters past all the countless bull shit, nay-saying it effectively broke down the door for new films that featured Asian Americans. In just a year’s time Henry Golding has already starred in “A Simple Favor” and is set to star in two more before the year’s end. John Cho was able to make his directorial debut with “Searching” and is set to play Spike Spiegel in Netflix’s “Cowboy Bebop.” Ali Wong’s “Always Be My Maybe” was a huge streaming hit as well on Netflix last month. And Marvel Studios is finally ready to have an Asian American super hero make his debut in Shang Chi later in the MCU’s phase 4.
(Ali Wong is just delightful if you didn’t already know btw.)
This is what I mean whenever I say Hollywood needs to give these films a chance because look how much has changed with just one movie. Who knows if a movie like “The Farewell” would’ve had a chance at even minor independent film stardom if a movie like “Crazy Rich Asians” hadn’t been given a chance to shine first on the big stage.
These movies and these people deserve a chance to tell their stories because they are relevant, they are poignant and more than anything they are good fucking stories! “The Farewell” is easily my favorite film of the year and I am grateful to “Crazy Rich Asians” for making it a possibility to be here. And if you think diversity still doesn’t matter then kindly just go fuck yourself because Asian Americans, these films and these beautiful, heart-wrenching and often funny stories are here to stay whether you like it or not.
(Seriously though can we like hang out, Ms. Awkwafina?)
“The Farewell” is well worth searching for a theater that’s playing it on the limited release circuit and will have you laughing and crying at the same time before and after the credits roll. It’s a film that will undoubtedly leave a mark no matter what cultural background you come from because the love in this story is relevant to everyone.
So, go see this movie and don’t forget to bring your Nai Nai too.
5 out of 5
Me after the credits rolled.