An Asian family keeps a devastating secret in uplifting dramedy
Awkwafina has gained more popularity ever since she took on brilliant comedy supporting roles in “Ocean’s Eight” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Now, in the tradition of Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love,” Steve Carell in “Little Miss Sunshine,” and Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” she takes on a more serious role in “The Farewell.”
The result: she is flat-out perfect, and so is the movie.
The Chinese culture is presented with such radiance and complexity. It’s not glamorous and colorful like “Crazy Rich Asians.” It’s more cultural and considerate, giving the actors some truth and emotions. And most of the dialogue is in Chinese, as are the credits, and the English is placed on the side, because one of the families moved to America. That explains it.
And it’s also based on a true story. “Based on an actual lie,” to be exact. A family tradition suggests that it’s better not to reveal a terminal illness to the dying victim-the grandparents mostly. They would rather hold the burden, then let the soon-to-be departed do it. And that would be the movie’s main grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who has Stage 4 lung cancer, and is given 3 months to live. Because of the family’s fabrication, she believes she just has benign shadows (whatever that means).
Awkwafina plays Billi, who lives in New York City, and receives the word of her grandma’s illness from her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin). They tell her about it being a secret, and that’s why her only cousin (Han Chen) is marrying is girlfriend of 3 months (Aoi Mizuhara) in China. They needed an excuse to go to their homeland. Billi knows keeping the illness a secret is a bad idea, and struggles to hold in her inner emotions in her grandma’s presence.
Writer/director Lulu Wang (“Posthumous”) has given this true lie a heartbreaking and humous appearance, and it moves you in countless ways. “The Farewell” allows Awkwafina to prove to herself she can be as serious as she is funny. I remember a lesson from Richard Roeper and Roger Ebert that actors can be great if they’re given the right roles. It’s about expanding your horizons, and comedy stars can posses the courage to do so.
If Lady Gaga can earn herself an Oscar-nomination for her performance in “A Star is Born,” then so can Awkwafina for “The Farewell.”
But it’s not just her we should single out. Tzi Ma and Diana Lin both deliver memorable performances as her parents, and Shuzhen Zhou is simply delightful as the terminally ill grandmother. None of these character are generic or irritating. They’re people with real feelings. Wang writes everyone with sincerity and passion.
This is a sad and miraculous movie and deserves to be seen. It also has the humor, heart, and drama near the level of “Little Miss Sunshine;” and as a matter of fact, it was also produced by the same people behind it-Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub. Both these movies know what family dramas are, and we should be fond of them.