Writer/director Lulu Wang’s multilingual second feature is drawn from her own experience, and therefore features the kind of raw emotional pain that can only be recreated by someone who’s lived it.
Nevertheless, this is a subtly moving drama, mostly because it’s about the suppression of feelings instead of shrieking and hand-wringing melodramatics, and due to the beautifully understated central performance of Awkwafina as Billi.
Recognisable from her recent roles in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina plays twentysomething Billi Wang as a woman in a state of quiet uproar and bursting to talk but unable to. Scenes where she looks virtually straight into the camera (and, towards the end, seemingly breaks that old ‘Fourth Wall’) are very touching.
The Chinese-American Billi has recently been refused a Guggenheim Fellowship and is having a hard time in New York, and things take another turn for the worse when she discovers that her beloved Nai Nai (‘paternal grandmother’ in Mandarin and played by Zhao Shuzhen) has terminal lung cancer and might only have a few months to live back in Changchun. However, according to time-honoured cultural rules, it has been decided by those closest not to tell Nai Nai what is happening to her, a decision that leads to Billi clashing frequently with her scattered family.
A rushed wedding has been arranged for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) as an excuse to get everyone all together one last time, and as Billi can’t be relied upon to keep her mouth shut, she’s pretty much told to stay away by her Mom Jian (Diana Lin) and Dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma, the most prolific player here). Still, she somehow makes the trip and puts on a brave face for Nai Nai, but then falls apart with the rest of the family, who keep on insisting that this is the only way to do this and that it’s a perfectly acceptable Chinese tradition.
Billi doesn’t believe this at all and her biggest and most impressive scene demonstrates that not only is keeping the truth from Nai Nai unbearable for her, but so is the fact that she lost so much when, as a child, she moved to America with her parents. It felt so sudden. Everything changed. Everything was different. Everyone was gone. Just like life.
Unsentimental but never unsympathetic, this presents a difficult situation we’re all sure to face time and again – until out own farewell, that is.
The Farewell (PG) is in cinemas now