“YouTube rapper” is among the myriad 21st-century phrases that strike fear and uncertainty in middle-aged fogies like me and makes us want to hastily close our browser windows and go seek refuge in MeTV reruns. I’d seen the stage name “Awkwafina” here and there in credits for such films as Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, neither of which I’ve seen yet, but I know zilch about her earlier works or online career. To be fair, most musicians whose entire resumes are less than a decade old are strangers to me. I figured I’d reach that age sooner or later in life, and knowing I’ve arrived there kind of sucks. I take heart that at least I’ve maintained a patient politeness with today’s bizarrely chosen entertainer names and I do try to suppress knee-jerk responses such as “In related news, I now wish to be known by my rapper name, Coo-Laid Mann.”
It’s been six years since the last time I had the chance to attend an advance movie screening (2013’s Broken City, for which I still want recompensated). Our city’s only verified art-house theater holds an occasional drawing for free screenings, which I keep losing. That changed this past week when I was a lucky winner invited to see Awkwafina star in the new A24 dramedy The Farewell, which I’d never heard of prior to the theater’s emails.
Thus my son and I found ourselves in a full house on a Monday night, snugly within an audience of whom the majority were over 65. This crowd was the most senior citizens I’ve seen in a theater in years. I’m pretty sure I knew more about Awkwafina than they did. Halfway through the movie the 80-something lady on my left fell asleep. At one point my son noticed someone behind us was listening to music on earbuds. On the bright side, no one in the rows ahead of us played on their phones during the movie.
Generational differences can be a funny thing.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Awkwafina is Billi, born in China but emigrated to America when she was 6, as was the film’s writer/director Lulu Wang. (The bulk of The Farewell was inspired by a segment that appeared on NPR’s This American Life, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other parallels.) Billi and her parents live in NYC; her uncle’s family lives in Japan, his relocation of choice; her beloved grandma (“Nai Nai” in Chinese) and her great-aunt still live back in the ol’ homeland. Billi keeps in close touch with Nai Nai across the miles, albeit spoken by phone through a veneer of white lies belying her hard times as an aspiring creative type. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, but advice travels faster than light and burns hotter than fire when we don’t want to hear it.
Everyone’s cool with the status quo until doctors deliver the news that Nai Nai has three months to live. As an added excuse for a reunion and as a sort of bucket-list gift to Nai Nai, the family has rush-arranged a wedding for Haohao, Billi’s cousin and Nai Nai’s only grandson. Against her parents’ wishes, Billi spends money she doesn’t have to travel to China and spend quality time with Nai Nai while she still can. Everyone else is going, so staying home would be miserable on multiple levels.
One catch: in some Chinese families there’s a tradition of not telling elderly relatives when they’re dying. Sometimes it means a lot of falsehoods, some light document alteration, and, presumably in extreme cases, discretionary cooperation from their doctors. Theoretically it’s meant to let them enjoy their closing chapters in ignorant bliss instead of wallowing in self-pity or rending their garments or just being total Debbie Downers. Can the entire family conspire on this whopper of a lie and keep their best Dunder Mifflin faces on, for the sake of tradition and/or Nai Nai? Billi isn’t so sure she can.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The only other cast member who might be readily familiar to Western audiences is Billi’s dad — played by Tzi Ma, Jackie Chan’s boss and father of a kidnapped daughter in the original Rush Hour. More recently he was a high-ranking Chinese official in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, among scores of other character-actor sized roles in TV shows and movies over the past thirty years. He’ll also figure into the upcoming Netflix series Wu Assassins.
The Farewell is otherwise not one of your high-profile, big-bucks agency casting packages.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? What’s more important, our ethical honor or our loved ones’ emotional comfort? That’s among the conflicts that paralyzes Billi throughout the film. She needs desperately to cry and wail and say goodbye with a capital G, and to share all that with Nai Nai openly, because sharing is what you do with loved ones. Quality time without sharing true feelings is a compromised position that tears her up inside. But is it selfish or even cruel to want to drag Nai Nai down into the pits of despair? And yet, is it cool to keep her spirits high by abetting the family fraud?
Meanwhile, Nai Nai is having the time of her life. She still does her morning exercises, still fawns over the youngsters, and naturally won’t stop helping with the wedding planning. When the event venue insists the menu will feature crab and not lobster, Nai Nai is not having it and there will be lobster or else. She may be small and wiry and ignoring the raspy cough that she thinks is a lingering side effects of some old pneumonia, but she’s nonetheless a dynamo, even as smiles flicker and fade all around her, a sort of pre-wake frozen in willful denial, only to flash at full strength whenever Nai Nai’s roving gaze returns their way.
Her attitude is so upbeat, it invites the audience to wonder: does Nai Nai know? Are they really fooling her? Is she playing along? If it’s an old tradition and she’s old, surely she’s aware of it, right? Has memory failed her, or is she playing her own long con because she doesn’t want to see them despair? Whose emotionally repressed detente is this, anyway?
Nitpicking? Not a complaint, but based on the plot description I expected screwball hijinks. This isn’t that kind of film, though I’ve no doubt a major-studio remake would surely inject some unnecessary slapstick. Let’s not do that, please?
So what’s to like? I refused to watch a single Awkwafina video before finishing this entry because I liked the idea of thinking through it with zero basis for comparison. My son confirms this role is nothing else he’s seen from her to date. By the very nature of her predicament Billi has to stay low-key in group settings, doing her best to respect the edict of her elders no matter how much it hurts. Bottled feelings are tough to portray on screen without looking like you’re just staring out windows at the nearest horizon. There’s a bit of that, to be sure, but the subtlety of Billi’s turmoil wafts through every time she loses a debate, avoids pointed questions, or finds herself besieged by Nai Nai’s natural born perkiness.
The rest of the upstanding cast have their own ways of getting grief stricken from their records. The two elder sons — Tzi Ma’s dad and his brother the Japan expatriate (Yongbo Jiang) — must maintain stiff upper lips because it’s what males of all cultures do, but they each make space to have little breakdowns. The soon-to-be-wed young couple (Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara) seem bonded in mutual awkwardness, star-crossed lovers who’d rather be anywhere but here, but don’t want to be rude about it. As Billi’s mom, Diana Lin brings dignity and a loving firmness (albeit with finite patience for her rebellious offspring) to a role that, in broader fare by lesser hands, would be played as a one-note shrew. This close-knit ensemble deftly avoids the traps that might befall your ordinary stock-character troupe.
Much of this would be for naught without Nai Nai as the nexus that binds them all. Shuzhen Zhao has had a long acting career in China, which our IMDb isn’t yet equipped to recognize (as of tonight her entry looks like that of any meandering extra), but hers is a vibrant spirit that brings poignancy and guileless joy to her family and to The Farewell, one of this year’s best cinematic surprises.
Also worth noting: maybe I’m alone in this, but the final moment before the end credits arguably has the funniest final line of a film since Some Like It Hot. My son disagreed, so Your Mileage May Vary. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Farewell end credits, though all the names are rendered in both English and Chinese pictographs, or whatever today’s preferred term is. I recall learning the term from a kid’s book about the Chinese language that I flipped through at the library when I was in grade school. It’s been a while, so it’s okay to correct me if I’m obsolete.