July 11, 2019

CINEMA | Call Your Grandma – Awkwafina Bids 'The Farewell'

"It's a good lie."
Awkwafina Zhao Shuzhen Tzi Ma Lulu Wang | The Farewell

Adapted from her own real-life family experience "based on an actual lie", sophomore filmmaker Lulu Wang brilliantly dramatizes the bizarre Chinese tradition of lying to elderly terminal cancer patients about their impending deaths. Starring comedian/rapper Awkwafina as Billi in a fine dramatic turn, The Farewell tells a uniquely emotional Chinese-American cross-cultural story of family obligation and love.

Under the guise of a cousin's staged wedding, Billi's extended family travels back to China from New York for one last (somewhat duplicitous but heartfelt) goodbye for her unknowingly sick matriarchal Nai Nai ("grandmother") played splendidly by Zhao Shuzhen. Her relationship with Billi is the crux of the film's emotional core. It's such a sweet, affecting journey that's emotional yet so true to Chinese cultural traditions and frustrations.

What's so remarkable about Wang's film is how she uses the little lies we tell each other every day (especially in Asian cultures) to explore the tensions of family obligations and relationships. How reserved and composed everyone tries to be reflects down on each generations' emotional baggage. Nai Nai's beloved nature and her treatment of her family show her capacity of love yet every little tender detail unfolds the burden of that love.

Awkwafina is simply sensational as the freebird American daughter who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Her performance is a revelation of her range and nuance as a subtle but powerful dramatic performer. Don't mistake the film's grim subject matter, there is so much laugh out loud funny material as Wang finds so much ironic humour in the sheer ridiculousness of many hallmarks of Chinese life.

Co-starring veteran character actors Tzi Ma and Diana Lin as Billi's parents, the cast of Chinese performers of varying backgrounds are so varied and each brings a different emotional quality to their characters much like real-life families. It was so refreshing how each had a specific part or role in the family including those who faded into the background, were just there, or said very little. Things felt particularly authentic to specific Asian family dynamics where longheld relationships informed the roles each played.

The balance of east meets west themes from the story's visual storytelling and traditional static shots and wide frames really echo the sense of belonging to a family of the story's drama. Despite the Mandarin spoken and mostly Mainland China setting, there's so much Asian-American influence as the film feels the characters' sense of returning to an unfamiliar home.

Awkwafina Tzi Ma Lulu Wang | The Farewell

Wang's film is such a bittersweetly triumphant turn of humour and sorrow. Full of genuine emotion, The Farewell shows audiences such universal familial experience through specificity superbly. Its use of traditions to dissect cultural morality and care leaves a lasting impression. By so carefully dramatizing her real-life family's specific experiences, Wang has made a film that's so clearly for everyone to empathize with and understand.

It will definitely make you want to call your grandma and eat all the dumplings. The Farewell opens in Vancouver on July 19th and expands nationally August 2nd.

Sidenote: This film brought up a lot of my own feelings about grandparents. I basically have not really had any grandparent in my life since I was a teenager. I never really knew either of my grandfathers (not uncommon in Asian cultures). Both died without knowing me when I was younger—my father and I actually discovered my grandfather (his father) passed away on my eighth birthday, but that's another story.

Anyways, my paternal grandmother, who helped raise me, was hit by a car and died when I was seventeen, so I never got to have an adult relationship with her. My maternal grandmother lives in Vietnam. I saw her twice when I visited at ages seven and twelve. We almost never speak on the phone because of language and cultural barriers (also, guilt), so I went almost twenty years without seeing/talking to her until she came to Canada for the first time last year.

I realized I had forgotten what it was like to have a grandparent suddenly as an adult. It was actually a surreal experience. When we said goodbye, there was a distinct feeling it could be the last time we saw each other with no future plans to meet.

In a twist on The Farewell's story, my mother was the one who had a serious cancer diagnosis and kept it a secret from my grandmother only until after she recovered because she would only worry or get upset being unable to do anything living far away similar to in the film.

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