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« The 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards | Main | Sundance: Zora Howard in "Premature" »
Sunday
Jan272019

Sundance: Awkwafina in "The Farewell"

Murtada Elfadl reporting from Sundance

Big family gatherings can be tough. Especially when the gathered family are dispersed all over the world and live disparate lives. In The Farewell, a family gathers in China, ostensibly for a cousin’s wedding. Some flew in from Japan, some from the United States and some are, of course, local. As the conversation gets real and tense about living in different places, what values and opportunities you get and lose when you leave the home country, the film hit me hard. It reminded me of my own family and gatherings like this. When reality forces families to disperse, the push/pull of old vs new country can get contentious, emotional, and raw. Writer/director Lulu Wang captures this exact tension acutely. She also writes with love and authenticity about family so The Farewell hits an emotional bullseye.

Front and center is Awkwafina as a young Chinese-American artist, Billi, living in New York with her immigrant parents...

She shares a tender by-phone relationship with her grandmother, Nai Nai, back in China. Wang based the character on her own relationship with her grandmother. When Nai Nai receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, the family decides to hide the news from her and instead concocts a scheme to marry off Hao Hao, a cousin from the Japanese branch of the family back home in China, so that they have an excuse to gather around Nai Nai one more time before she goes.The decision does not sit well with Billi who wants the truth told, while everyone keeps reminding her it’s the Chinese way to let Nai Nai live blissfully unaware for the short remainder of her life while the rest of the family carries the emotional burden.

That push pull of old country  / new country values provides the thrust of the comedy. The laughter comes from the fraught situation. Is Nai Nai really unaware of her situation and why everyone is acting so strangely around her? She's surely much smarter than that. The culmination of the strain comes in a wedding toast that quickly disintegrates into a hilarious eulogy that is full of tears and fervent declarations of life-long love and guilt. Comedy as tragedy and vice versa and Wang is able to maintain that taut line throughout the film. All the characters are finely observed, as are the relationships between them. The friction and love between in-laws, between generations, and between families with different cultural values is recognizable and true.

Diana Lin, Awkwafina, and Tzi Ma (who you'll remember from "Arrival") at the party for "The Farewell"

The cast are able to build on the gem of the script and give us many memorable moments, particularly Diana Lin as Billi’s mother who’s always exasperated because she’s wiser than those around her. Awkwafina acquits herself well in her first dramatic role, though I was more impressed with Chen Han as the reluctant and comically sad groom, who never says a word; he just lets it all play on his face. This is the kind of smart well-told film that establishes a career. Lulu Wang has previously only made shorts and one feature that weren't really screened outside of festivals. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

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Reader Comments (6)

I was just saying a few days ago that I hope Awkwafina (who would make my own Best Supporting Actress list for this year) doesn't get perpetually saddled with "quirky best friend" roles. Glad to see I'm so quickly reassured!

This sounds wonderful.

January 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

cant wait to see this. All the movies sound so good thus far.

January 27, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I am really excited for this one. Awkwafina's performance in Crazy Rich Asians was one of my movie highlights of 2018, and I'm thrilled to see her get a lead role in a promising film.

BTW, I believe this is based on a fairly recent This American Life segment.

January 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

A24 has picked it up too!

January 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRod

Looking forward to this!

January 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRicopolo

Very late to this party, but I CANNOT WAIT to see this.

January 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

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