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Awkwafina fuels poignancy of ‘The Farewell’

Dan Webster

After opening at AMC River Park Square, where it continues this week, writer-director Lulu Wang's film "The Farewell" begins a run at the Magic Lantern on Friday. Following is a review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

When we first meet Billi – the character played by the rapper/actress Awkwafina in writer-director Lulu Wang’s film “The Farewell” – she’s struggling. Trying to make it as a freelance writer, she’s behind in her rent and – if that weren’t bad enough – she’s just been turned down for a fellowship she had been counting on.

Then comes even worse news: She discovers that her beloved grandmother, known affectionately as Nai Nai, is dying.

Which is further complicated by the fact that, for reasons that Wang spends the rest of her movie exploring, others in Billi’s family – both her relatives in China and her New York-resident parents – decide to keep the truth of that diagnosis from their doyenne. Why cause her unnecessary worry? they argue.

Billi, who came to the U.S. with her parents at a young age and is thoroughly indoctrinated in all matters Western, doesn’t understand. Shouldn’t Nai Nai be told, she asks, so that she’ll have a chance to say goodbye?

It’s that culture clash between Western and traditional Eastern attitudes that rests at the heart of “The Farewell,” a movie that is loosely based on Wang’s real-life experiences – and begins with an announcement that what follows “is based on an actual lie.”

The challenge facing Wang is immense: Domestic comedies come in various forms, but blending comedy with drama isn’t easy when cancer enters the mix. Further complicating matters, Wang is attempting to capture the rhythms of Chinese culture and tradition, contrasting them at the same time to Billi’s more contemporary, U.S.-oriented attitudes, all while doing so in a way that appeals to a foreign audience.

That Wang succeeds is a measure of several things: One involves her skill at creating credible characters, from Awakafina’s Billi to Nai Nai (played by veteran Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen) to Billi’s parents (played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin).

Another is her ability to adapt her own memories and find the right plot for her characters to navigate: Unwilling to tell Nai Nai about her fatal diagnosis, the family arranges a hasty wedding between one of Billi’s cousins and his Japanese girlfriend (mutely but expertly played by the actress Aoi Mizuhara).

This impromptu event gives everyone a chance to meet up in Nai Nai’s presence one last time. Much of the comedy involves the family’s efforts to shield Nai Nai, while the drama comes from each character’s personal revelations, many of which are reactions to Billi’s disapproval.

And then there’s Wang’s talent for finding the right cast: Awkwafina, who was a high point of last year’s hit comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” is equally effective in a polar-opposite role here. Seventy-five-year-old Shuzhen brings the right mix of no-nonsense tough love to Nai Nai, the woman whom, despite her sometimes intimidating presence, everyone loves.

Finally, Wang is able to make her own personal culture clash, complex as it is, relatable to American moviegoers – especially to those who still believe in the notion of America being a multicultural melting pot.

That final factor may be, in the end, the most important: It provides “The Farewell” with its most incisive poignancy.