Starring Awkwafina. In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Rated PG
In The Farewell, writer-director Lulu Wang reveals herself to be a major talent while allowing Awkwafina, better known for her comic antics and rapping skills, to show off impressive dramatic chops.
The Ocean’s Eight star here plays Billi, a struggling New York writer whose current listlessness is interrupted by news that her beloved grandmother is dying of cancer. She learns this from her parents (Australia’s Diana Lin and Meditation Park dad Tzi Ma), who don’t want her to join them on their last visit home, to Changchun—a place she left as an infant—in China’s far northeast.
Why? The family won’t let the old lady know what’s happening, and they’re sure Billi will spill the beans.
She goes anyway, and is advised to join in what her uncle (Yongbo Jiang) calls “a good lie”—a better title for this bittersweet culture-clash comedy. The uncle went to Japan when Billi’s clan moved to New York, and the hasty wedding of his son (Han Chen) to a Japanese girlfriend is the multicultural pretext for everyone’s abrupt homecoming.
Billi’s white-haired Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is a kind-hearted if bossy soul who nags the conflicted young American about her shapeless clothes and mopey attitude. A aura of resigned sadness hangs over the ostensibly happy, food-rich get-togethers, and the expected family arguments eschew sentimentality and sitcom beats, let alone the glitz of Crazy Rich Asians.
Aside from some rhythmic missteps, the movie doesn’t quite get around to developing the character of the hesitant groom, and it doesn’t show much interest in Billi’s talents, if any. This is odd, because the story was previously rendered as a personal memoir by Wang. She still seems to be working out what that trip to China meant. But if the process is somewhat unresolved, it’s immensely entertaining to watch.