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The Farewell
★★☆☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Rapper turned actress Awkwafina (Ocean's 8Crazy Rich Asians) makes her début as a dramatic lead in Lulu Wang’s autobiographical feature The Farewell. Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese-American artist who moved to New York with her parents when she was six and has since straddled the East-West divide. She maintains a close connection by phone to her grandmother Nai Nai in China. But when her family learns from the doctors that Nai Nai has only a short while to live, they decide not to tell her of her condition and instead arrange an impromptu wedding as an excuse to gather the family one more time in China before Nai Nai passes away.

Wang based the film on her own family’s reaction to her grandmother's illness—it’s apparently common in China to keep an elderly relative in the dark about a diagnosis like stage four cancer. Wang first wrote this story for a 2016 episode of the popular National Public Radio show This American Life.  I remember hearing that episode and getting pulled into Wang’s detailed sharing of her mixed feelings around withholding the truth from someone she loved; how this predicament was indicative of her awkward position as someone caught between cultures and generations, and how she felt like a fish out of water in her homeland. Unfortunately, little of what resonated so much in that radio story translates to this film. The Farewell features a surprisingly underdeveloped script—especially considering it went through the Sundance Lab, where scripts are often developed to the point of contrivance. The story remains an interesting anecdote full of lived-experience detail, but it hasn’t grown into a cinematic narrative that sustains a feature length.

The inertness inherent in the main character’s situation doesn’t work to the film’s advantage. As we watch Billi go passively through the movie’s protracted beats, we don’t get to know her the way we came to have a rich understanding of Wang while listening to her inner thoughts in hindsight on the radio. The few times Billi expresses her feelings to select family members, she seems to be talking to the audience, telling us what we’re supposed to take away from this picture, more than confronting the other characters. Billi starts out as a depressed, rudderless, wannabe artist with a strained connection to her parents and her cultural heritage, and nothing about the experience of returning to China and participating in this big, collective lie does much to change that.

Awkwafina certainly doesn’t embarrass herself, but it's difficult not to wonder what layers a more skilled dramatic actress might have brought to the role. And I found myself wishing Wang had taken a few more liberties with the story to give it some emotional highs and lows. This is a reserved movie about a reserved family, which could be fine if the central character had been given more to do than try to put on a brave face while slouching and sulking.

Twitter Capsule:
Wang's surprisingly underdeveloped autobiographical story of a Chinese family who decides to keep their beloved Grandmother in the dark when they discover she has only a short time left to live, coasts on respectful reserve with few emotional or narrative highs and lows.

 

Directed by Lulu Wang
Produced by Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Chris Weitz, Andrew Miano, Anita Gou, Daniele Tate Melia, and Jane Zheng

Written by Lulu Wang

With: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Hanwei, and Li Xiang

Cinematography: Anna Franquesa Solano
Editing: Michael Taylor and Matt Friedman
Music: Alex Weston

Runtime: 98 min
Release Date: 12 July 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color