New York writer and performer Awkwafina played the Eve Arden part in Crazy Rich Asians. Blonde of wig and husky of voice, her wacky sidekicking made the film come alive. In The Farewell, she’s no longer a fashionable Singapore firecracker, but plays Billi, a young writer shrouded in earth-toned clothes, who has a teenager’s slump to her shoulders and who dwells under an almost-visible cloud of disappointment.
Billi is not a smiler—she has little to smile about. She’s broke, behind in the rent and was just turned down for a Guggenheim grant. Drawn back to the suburbs by a phone call, she learns that back in China her Nai Nai—grandma (Shuzen Shao)—has stage-four lung cancer. We’re told there’s a saying that it’s not the cancer that kills, it’s the fear of it that kills. So, the family comes up with a fib: The X-rays show only “benign shadows” on the grandmother’s lungs. In order to see Nai Nai one last time, the relatives trump up a wedding for one of the cousins to a Japanese girlfriend he doesn’t really know that well.
While the family is in China, we see Billi endure the kind of friction she was trying to get some distance from. Her relatives give her trouble about how little money she makes as a writer. Billi’s dad (Tzi Ma) is a problem drinker. The mom (Diana Lin) has a chilly, remote side. Like so many, Billi has a better relationship with her grandmother than her parents.
Director/writer Lulu Wang takes a straightforward approach, without the flashbacks customary in stories about families and memory. We see what Billi sees; how the China of her happy childhood is being bulldozed for a forest of soulless high rises. It’s in the wedding segment that The Farewell gets really fun, with the gaudy colors of the banquet hall—iridescent blue velvet curtains, landscapes in too-bright hues hanging on the walls—and the well-rehearsed staff welcoming the guests by chanting in unison, like cheerleaders. It’s not a preposterously formal occasion. The emcee is in an aloha shirt. A little kid picks up a whole crab and stares into its face with trepidation. There’s a memory game—shot from a lazy Susan-mounted camera—where you take a shot of booze if you fail to keep the words straight.
Shao is a heartening grandma with a lot of salt to her; particularly entertaining when she’s laughing over old times with her fellow Red Army vets. She’s a figure anyone would love and grieve for, but it’s Awkwafina as a young woman feeling like a stranger in both the East and the West, who keeps this story tantalizingly tense.
‘The Farewell’ is playing at the Century Regency, 280 Smith Road, San Rafael. 415.479.6496.