Within the past couple of years, the American film industry has become more aware of its influence on today’s politics, especially when it comes to minority representation. From the Oscar-winning “Black Panther” to the box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians”, these films further prove that representation matters. But in the midst of computer-generated superheroes battles and extravagant wedding, there is a niche slot for a personal film about cultural and family conflicts of a first-generation Asian American titled “The Farewell”.
An instant hit earlier this year at Sundance, “The Farewell” follows the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a 31-year-old Chinese American who lives in New York and has a close relationship with her Nai Nai, Chinese for paternal grandmother, who lives in Changchun, China. As she learns that her Nai Nai has stage four lung cancer, she must return to China with her family to visit her Nai Nai one last time. But there is a catch: Nai Nai’s cancer must be kept a secret, as part of the Chinese culture to not tell the elders that they are dying. And in order to do so, the family stages her cousin’s wedding as an excuse to have a family reunion in China.
There is a juxtaposition the moment the title card “The Farewell” shows on screen. The white-letter title in Chinese and then in English impose upon each other, hinting at the theme of duality. And this theme carries out the entire film: the duality of Chinese and American culture, the duality of Eastern and Western ideology, the duality of celebration and mourning, and most importantly, the duality of Billi’s personal identity. Based on a true event in her life, Director Lulu Wang has wonderfully crafted the most beautiful and authentic story about Asian American’s experiences to ever grace the silver screen.
“The more I talk about it, the more I realize that, even after making the movie, i don’t have an answer of what’s right and what’s wrong,” Lulu Wang, “this american life” podcast.
As Wang states on the podcast, there is simply no correct answer regarding cultures. The question of, “Is it wrong to tell a lie?” is not meant to be answered; but rather she wants the audience to understand the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. Billi’s internal conflict is not meant to be resolved in binary yes or no, but the process of figuring the answer is the solution itself. This approach allows Wang to explore cultural conflicts with care and respect.
Well balanced between drama and comedy, the film comedic moments stems from the awkwardly tense, yet real, dialogues and actions. Wang’s natural talent shines the brightest through her script. Meticulously written, each dialogue feels like a real conversation, creating an awkward tension within the family dynamics, yet at the same time, exploring bits and pieces of the larger-than-life Chinese culture. Wang has a good understanding of pacing and audience’s expectations, as well as emotions; this knowledge allows her to expertly weave situational irony as the main driving force behind the comedy throughout this entire film. I laugh, and then cry, and then laugh again, but these transitions are so seamless and not once feel out of place or abrupt. Wang proves that she is a naturally talented filmmaker.
To praise this film without praising Awkwafina would be unjust. Portraying the playful yet emotional, expressive yet restrained Billi, Awkwafina draws inspiration from her personal experience and relationship with her own grandmother, making her performance even more authentic. She brings a rawness to screen that emotionally grounds the film together. Her comedic talent is still present, yet it is rightfully more subdued in this film. For a comedian to tackle such role, few would succeed, yet Awkwafina outshines and outperforms any expectations I had for her, making it one of my favorite performance in 2019. But Awkwafina would not be the same without her magnificent co-star Zhao Shuzhen, who plays the forever youthful Nai Nai. Nai Nai is universal, and Shuzhen brings a perfect warmth, compassion, and lightheartedness to her performance and serves as a foil for the internally conflicted Akwafina’s Billi. There is a playful aurora to both Nai Nai and Shuzhen that makes the character lovable with her endearing “stupid child” insults to Bilii.
As a first-generation Vietnamese American, the story resonates deeply with me and among many other first-generation immigrants. Billi’s struggles feel all too real and personal; since oftentimes, I question myself how much of my Vietnamese culture I should hold on. And, to be honest, I don’t have an answer yet. But seeing this film, seeing my personal experience on the big screen, I cry because I learn to appreciate the duality of my personal identity. “The Farewell” is a strip back and simple emotional rollercoaster ride that is both beautiful and poignant.
Please go check it out at your local theater as the film goes nationwide this weekend August 03, 2019.
Rating: 10/10 (A+)