Billi is a young, down-on-her luck Chinese-American writer – hoping for that elusive big break, but recently rejected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Billi was born in China, and certainly looks Chinese; but everything else about her is American. The way she walks, the way she holds her body, the way she presents herself, the way she reacts to others. This gal is American!
But as writer-director Lulu Wang shows us in the recently released Sundance favorite “The Farewell,” those descended from other cultures generally, and from China specifically, never fully integrate into the societal norms of America. Billi’s closest friend and confidant is her paternal grandmother, whom she calls Nai Nai. They speak on the phone every day, and Billi shares her hopes and dreams with Nai Nai – although she does withhold the devastating news about the grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. She apparently doesn’t want to upset her beloved grandmother.
Yet it’s Billi who protests when her parents share the news that Nai Nai is dying of terminal cancer and has been given mere months to live. And the rest of the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai. Instead, the family plans a fake wedding – between Billi’s cousin and a girl he’s been dating for a mere three months – as an excuse to reunite the family back in China to visit Nai Nai one last time, albeit under “happy” circumstances. Apparently, this form of “little white lie” is common in China, but Billi has been living in America most of her life. She simply cannot comprehend lying to a dying patient to shield her from such news.
Fearing Billi may spill the proverbial beans, her parents leave her behind in New York. But Billi hops the next plane to China and joins the family at Nai Nai’s house. The next few days are filled with joyful reminiscences of happy, youthful times – for everyone, seemingly, except Billi.
As Billi, American actress Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is required to walk a fine line. If she plays Billi too bleak, her moping would infiltrate the joy of the wedding; but if she’s too cheery, she’d come off as phony. Awkwafina is absolutely perfect. We believe her every emotion and hang on her every word. For American audiences, she serves as our guide through a culture with which many of us are unfamiliar. She is our archetypal window to a foreign culture.
Nai Nai, on the other hand, is pure Chinese. Born there, lived there all her life, and will die there. As Nai Nai, veteran Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen steals every scene she’s in. And that’s most of them. Nai Nai is delightful and warmhearted, yet with a spitfire streak that occasionally rears its head – including in a funny scene in which the caterers have prepared crab for the wedding reception, yet Nai Nai knows she specifically asked for lobster. Never rude or condescending, Nai Nai lets them know she’s in charge. But in a gentle way.
Shuzhen’s Nai Nai is the grandmother many of us were fortunate enough to have. And if we weren’t so blessed, we all wish we had a grandmother like her. Never one to speak out of turn, Nai Nai has a way of acting as the guiding force behind each family member. While Billi’s parents are certainly loving and supportive, it’s no wonder her kindred spirit is that of her grandmother. Shuzhen’s performance may be in another language – but it’s Oscar-worthy.
And for that matter, so is “The Farewell.” As with last year’s “Roma,” this could be a shoe-in for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Director Wang introduces us to another culture gently and observationally. It’s as though we’re eavesdropping on another world. And Wang – who was born and raised in America – doesn’t choose sides between the two civilizations. Not that she needs to, but how many times have we seen American films that speak down to those from other countries? In “The Farewell,” Billi’s American sensibility is at odds with that of her Chinese family members – but we are privy to understanding the situation from both perspectives.
It’s true that “The Farewell” will tug at your heartstrings, but it is also one of the funniest films so far this year. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which the extended family visits the grave of Billi’s grandfather (Nai Nai’s late husband). When Billi’s father lights a cigarette and places it on the tombstone, her mother protests that smoking isn’t good for him. Billi’s father responds that he would want one right about now. Neither party seems to acknowledge the fact that the “smoker,” in this case, is deceased – adding another layer to the humor that might elude us had this been a purely American production.
Ironically, “The Farewell” is an American film. With an American director, and an American star. It just so happens to be a foreign language film which charmingly explores life in another country halfway around the world. And anyone who sees “The Farewell” will be touched and moved. It ranks with “Yesterday” and “Wild Rose” as one of this summer’s true delights.