‘The Farewell’ movie review: Awkwafina proves she is not just a comedic actress in poignant Chinese family drama

The Awkwafina is Nora from Queens star turns in a stunning performance as a grieving granddaughter who must lie to her dying Nai Nai

Nicola Chan |

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Awkwafina (right) is a grieving granddaughter who must lie to her Nai Nai.

In Chinese culture, people tend to share good news and keep worries to themselves. There’s even an idiom in the language that describes this deep-rooted tradition, (bou hei bat bou jau) which roughly translates into “Share good news; hide bad news.”

This concept is examined with empathy and sensitivity in American family dramedy The Farewell.

Struggling to pay the rent and disheartened by a career setback, 30-year-old Chinese-American writer Billi Wang (Awkwafina) senses that her troubled parents are keeping something from her. 

 

 

When she finds out that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of cancer and has only a few months to live, Billi decides to fly to China against her parents’ wishes to join them and other returning emigrant relatives - to reunite with Nai Nai one last time under the guise of a cousin’s wedding. 

She also finds out that her parents have kept Nai Nai  in the dark about her own illness, and must keep up a facade of happiness in front of her dying grandmother.

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The realistic and poignant story of a traditional Chinese family reveals the bright side and dark side of keeping bad news from your loved ones. While the well-intended and selfless act can minimise others’ worries, the practice can also be highly distressing, create an invisible barrier between family members, or erode trust.

In addition to the thoughtfully written screenplay, a big part of the motion picture’s success lies in the excellent acting of the lead actresses, Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and Diana Lin (who played Billi’s mother Lu Jian). 

Awkwafina gives a natural and moving performance as the American-born Chinese who’s constantly torn between the culture she was raised in, and her cultural roots. Carefree, cheerful, and expressive, Billi complies with her senior family members’ wishes to shield the patient from the dire news, but is also confused and scared about lying to Nai Nai about her death. 

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Meanwhile, Zhao’s mature turn as the playful and generous Nai Nai will inspire both laughter and affection from the audience. Lin’s portrayal as the authoritative, tough and unaffectionate mother is impeccable as well. 

Complemented by a melancholic yet catchy soundtrack, and artistic cinematography, The Farewell shows the world how Chinese families work, while inviting international audiences to contemplate the beauty (and pain) of hiding emotional burden from our loved ones.