Last year, super-woke Hollywood made Crazy Rich Asians, because we all needed to know what it would feel like to poke our eyes out with chopsticks. Now that we know, let’s put on a comfy robe and have some dumplings with an authentic Chinese family.
Awkwafina, her spine still traumatized from having to wear platform sneakers the entire time in Dynasty With Asians, slumps around New York as struggling writer Billi, who doesn’t seem to get that she could reduce her crazy T-Mobile charges by not calling her grandmother in China about every little thing. But it’s sweet that they’re so close, even though the Chinese version of ‘close’ means calling your granddaughter stupid all the time.
The Chinese, being the Russians of Asia, have a hard, practical view on life, and sentimentality is just not in their wheelhouse. So when Billi’s family decides to go to China to say a surreptitious farewell to the grandma, who hasn’t been told she’s dying, Billi is forbidden to join because she’ll give the game away with her feelings.
Billi goes anyway, and what ensues is a funny and touching ensemble piece, as the family slowly cracks under the pressure of the lie. They pretend they’ve come for a child marriage hastily arranged as a distraction, and by the time we get to the reception banquet, everyone has become “overly emotional” Billi, ducking under tables and running for the bathroom to avoid crying in front of grandma, who thinks the hospital puts people through cat scans to diagnose a cold. Who’s really the stupid one, gramma?
There’s great stuff both universally relatable and specific to Chinese culture, like the traditional role of food and which of the Westernized family members have remained more authentically Chinese. No one calls out Awkwafina for her rapping, because she’s moved on and they all want to forget that part of her career.
Billi, representing the younger generation, thinks grandma should be told, so she can make her own choices about how to live the 6 months she has left. The older peeps feel it’s their obligation to carry the awful burden of the news themselves, sparing the grandma by lying to her. I don’t think this is just a Chinese thing, because it made me think what side I’d land on. It took me until the bottom of my popcorn bag to decide I would tell, so my grandma could hit her bucket list hard, hooking up with a widower on an Alaskan cruise, getting drunk at the Robert Mondavi Winery, and finally having me tell her the real reason I wore an earring in college.
Everyone plays their role so naturally, especially Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhou (grandmother NeiNei), and the script, written by director Lulu Wang, is so clear-eyed, that this feels like a look at a real, modern Chinese family, not some cartoon version.
The Farewell is every bit as enjoyable as the crazy rich or big fat ethnic fare we usually get fed. The difference is you still feel full an hour later.
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