While there is nothing overtly queer about Lulu Wang’s marvelous dramedy“The Farewell”(A24), it’s hard not see similarities between it and Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” and Alice Wu’s “Saving Face”. All three films have a shared focus on the importance of marriage, family and reputation in Chinese culture.
In “The Farewell”, Billi (queer rapper/actress Awkwafina), is a struggling artist living beyond her means in New York. Early on we find out that she’s been turned down for a major artist’s grant that would have been the answer to all of her woes, including the constant nagging of her loving and concerned parents, father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and mother Jian (Diana Lin). Little does Billi know that more calamities lie ahead.
The one source of light and joy in Billi’s life is her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) who lives in China. They talk on the phone on a regular basis. Nai Nai uses “stupid child” as a term of endearment for Billi, and they have an affectionate and supportive relationship. One night at dinner with her parents in Queens, Billi learns that they are going to China to attend the wedding of a Japan-based cousin that she didn’t even know was engaged.
After asking more questions, Billi is told the truth about their journey. Her Nai Nai has cancer and it is advanced. Nai Nai’s cancer diagnosis is being kept a secret from her by her doctors as well as her sister who lives with her. The wedding is a ruse to get the family together in China for one last visit with her. Billi is devastated. Because of that, and her inability to prevent emotion from showing in her facial expressions, she is not invited to go to China. Undeterred, Billi nevertheless gets herself to China, much to the surprise of her parents and other family members.
After the initial shock of her arrival, Billi is welcomed and we watch the family dynamics play out. Nai Nai is a mega-matriarch and everyone bows to her every whim. We get the impression that this was the case long before her cancer diagnosis. The scenes with Billi and Nai Nai are a sheer delight. One in which Nai Nai gets Billi to do her daily exercises with her is especially charming.
The wedding scene, which takes up a big (almost too big) portion of the movie is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. As Billi, Awkwafina displays a much wider acting range than we previously saw when she played Peik Lin Goh in Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a performance worth of being remembered when awards season rolls around.