The Farewell review – Awkwafina cements star status in family drama

The Crazy Rich Asians actor has won over Sundance with a heartfelt film based on an episode of This American Life

Last summer brought with it two films sharing two similarities: both starred Awkwafina and both wasted Awkwafina. The fast-talking comic dynamo cropped up in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians yet was sorely underused in both, showing us just enough to make us want much, much more, outperforming more seasoned co-stars with ease. Given her rising star (last year, she was also the first Asian woman to host Saturday Night Live since 2000) one would expect the next project to be a flashy star vehicle, an Apatow comedy, perhaps, something broad and multiplex-friendly.

But neatly sidestepping convention, Awkwafina has found surprise Sundance success with The Farewell, an unexpected dramatic leap, the kind of which comic actors usually make much later in their career.

It’s a statement of intent, informing the industry right from the outset that she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed and an ambitious one at that, heading up a film mostly in Mandarin. She plays Billi, a woman living in New York who moved to the US with her parents as a child, leaving her extended family in China. She’s maintained a close relationship with her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), speaking on the phone regularly, and is horrified to hear from her parents that she’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She’s even more horrified when she hears that her family aren’t planning to tell Nai Nai that she’s dying. Instead, a wedding has been planned as a cover for them to say their goodbyes, and Billi must travel to China to take part in the ruse.

The stage is set for all-out farce and while writer-director Lulu Wang does pepper her second feature with some light comedy, she avoids broader territory, instead choosing to construct a believably thorny family dynamic. The film is based on a true story, one that has previously been the subject of a This American Life episode, and there’s authenticity underpinning the outlandish setup as well as cultural specificity. Billi’s family explains that it’s not an uncommon practice to mislead a dying family member in China and throughout her visit, she is forced to reckon with her feelings of detachment, a stranger in a country where she was born. Again, there’s an avoidance of obvious culture clash comedy, and instead Wang deftly details both the guilt of living so far from family and how one’s concept of what home really means can get so tangled.

There’s also resonance in Wang’s examination of how different family members deal with extreme sadness. So often on screen there’s a narrow uniformity when grief, or in this case a sort of pre-grief, is handled that it’s refreshing to see a film that recognises the spectrum. There’s a melancholy hovering in the background and Awkwafina does fine work expressing this through her eyes, so close to tears yet unable to release for fear of revealing the secret. She gives an accomplished dramatic performance and is surrounded by a skilled ensemble, naturalistic but distinctive. As her dying grandmother, Zhou is wonderful. She’s loving but also spiky and insulting, a perceptive portrayal of an older family member whose filter has been lost along the way, such rich characterisation acting as a clear, unsoftened love letter to Wang’s real-life grandmother.

It’s a slight film at times but one that builds to a crescendo of emotion that left many in my particular screening rather bleary-eyed (I’d argue that the footnote, while eye-opening, sullies its power somewhat). Not long after its premiere, it was snapped up by A24 and it’s clear that the film will be heading toward a wide audience, along with its star, for whom The Farewell acts as one hell of an introduction.

  • The Farewell is showing at the Sundance film festival

Contributor

Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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