Sold as being based “on an actual lie,” the new comedy “The Farewell” stars Awkwafina as a young Chinese-American woman who goes with her family to China to see her dying grandmother.
And to help stage a fake wedding.
It’s also charming, funny and perceptive under the direction of Lulu Wang, who tells the lightly fictionalized story of her family learning that her grandmother has terminal cancer and then deciding they will not tell her that she has only months to live.
Patients who are told the truth live lives of decline and fear, the characters explain, so the family goes through with what is apparently a common tradition in China — and one in which doctors will even take part.
Such a thing couldn’t happen in the United States, of course, and that’s a jumping-off point for the film to explore several other cultural differences between countries and between people.
As Billi, Awkwafina (a breakout star of last summer’s “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Oceans 8”) is the on-screen depiction of her director, a New York-based writer who moved to the U.S. from China at age 6 and who is trying to find her career path.
With this emergency trip to China, Billi is also our guide to this culture and to showing us how a person who leaves their home country as a child, with a romantic lens approaching nostalgia, sees that place when she returns as an adult.
But some things never change, across ages or cultures.
Like a grandma (her “Nai Nai”) cooing over her and wanting to make sure she’s eating enough. And wearing enough to keep warm. And, as always, trying to find a mate to take care of her.
This would be the matriarch who is sick but who takes control of planning the grand wedding banquet for Billi’s male cousin (who looks sick at the idea of marriage and the idea of lying that most of the family seems comfortable doing).
First-time film actor Shuzhen Zhao is perfect as the loving grandmother, a tradition-true woman and smart — to the degree that I kept thinking that she may have already figured out her diagnosis.
Awkwafina, known for her clever comedic delivery, instead offers a poignant performance as a woman who is so independent in her New York life but who can also fall into a child-like role again among family in China before finding her voice.
There are moments in which the filmmaker seems to want to take the comedy in a more overt manner, before stopping short, as well as the drama, leaving the film occasionally not knowing which direction a scene should take.
But balance is found in the many wonderful family scenes and discussions, such as a restaurant scene in which China vs. America, wealth vs. happiness and family ties are debated while delicious dishes such as roast duck revolve in front of the diners (on something like a constantly moving “Lazy Susan” turntable).
The fantastic-looking food in the film had me thinking of Ang Lee’s masterpiece “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,” and that is high praise.
“The Farewell” evokes some of the same emotions as well, making it a generational crowd-pleaser perfect for adult children and their parents to enjoy together.
And with their grandparents, of course.
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