Having proved herself a scene stealing, eccentric comic in last year’s Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina is a revelation in Lulu Wang’s intrinsically more somber new drama The Farewell. Humorous beats are perhaps inevitable where the star is concerned – such is the human condition after all – but here come deftly woven with the poignance of a funerary tone. By the coming of Wang’s final stimulating shots, there can be little doubt that The Farewell will stand as one of 2019’s most moving features. It’s another well chosen triumph for hitmakers A24.
The film, which is penned too by Wang, opens with the wry line: ‘Based on an actual lie’. Though entirely fictional within its own context, The Farewell draws on the fascinating cross-cultural diversionary approach to terminal illness that Wang first shared on an episode of This American Life. In China, we are told, when people get cancer they die. Except, in that same country, is is not so unusual for a family to hide the inevitability of their suffering relative’s terminus from them as an act of kindness: ‘it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.’
Such is the dilemma facing Billi (Awkwafina) as she learns that her beloved Nai Nai (a splendid Zhao Shuzhen) has merely months to live. An immigrant to the US from the age of six, Billi has been raised to Western values and is, thus, sure of the immorality of the lie. And yet, as Wang brilliantly sketches, can there ever be a line where familial love is concerned? White, well-meaning, lies were integral to Billi’s life before and will be ever after.
As was the case with Wang’s dying grandmother, the lie necessitates here that a family gathering is manufactured so as to enable a final farewell across the board. Though uninvited – her parents fret that her inability to hide her emotions will give the game away – Billi flies on credit to her old home of Changchun, China, for the wedding of Hao Hao (Chen Han) and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), a couple whose love transcends boarders. There’s an interesting panopticon of languages at play in the film, belying Wang’s inherent ear for globalisation. Billi professes that her Mandarin is weak, whilst Aiko speaks not a word. A highlight scene, midway through the film, sees Billi breach the lie to a doctor before her grandmother but in English to maintain it. Few expressions better encapsulate the tragicomic essence of the wider whole than Nai Nai’s blissful ignorance. It’s hard not to think that a Hollywood take on the story would later reveal that she knew all along.
Wang handles her camera with artful ease and finds perfect harmony with the devastating strings and choral excess of Alex Weston’s score. So expressive is Weston’s music that it almost recalls the narrative impetus of silent cinema. It is, by equal measure, the ideal pairing for Awkwafina’s hauntingly subdued central turn. There’s lovely naturalism to her performance, shared unilaterally across the broader ensemble. In one sequence, the family attend the grave of Nai Nai’s late husband for an offering that rings blissfully true, right down to the bickering complaint that ‘all this bowing is making me dizzy’. More florid affectations – birds play an unusual part in Wang’s visual storytelling – might run the risk of unbalancing the film’s honesty but are nonetheless beautiful.
At a time when Hollywood is increasingly looking East for box office stabilisation, The Farewell makes no concessions in its delicate binding and clashing of the colliding territories. The balance is sublime and as insightful as it is funny, bittersweet and gently devastating. Billi embodies and emboldens all in one. This would be Awkwafina’s breakthrough were it not her second in as many years.