The best stories are the ones that speak to all of us. Regardless of the time, place and/or culture that the story is set in, there is a humanity to the characters and narrative that is universal.
Director Lulu Wang’s new film, The Farewell, is based on a true story from her own life. When her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the family made a decision to hide the truth of the diagnosis from her. To disguise what they think is their final goodbyes, Wang’s family decides that a wedding is in order.
An Asian Story with a Human Narrative
Stories about families and relationships are timeless. In one form or another, all of us are able to relate to these stories and the characters that inhabit the world of the story. As an audience member, the narrative thread and the relationship that I felt the most connected to was Billi (Awkwafina) and her grandmother, known to the family as Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zao).
All of my grandparents have long since passed into the next world. I consider myself very lucky to have had them in my life as long as I did. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without their influence and the time I had with them during my childhood and early adulthood. As I was watching The Farewell, my mind kept drifting back to my grandparents and how much I understood and appreciated the close bond between Billi and her grandmother.
On a personal note, the film’s star has often spoken about the close relationship has with her real-life grandmother. After her mother died, her grandmother stepped in to raise her grandchild. She credits her grandmother with her confidence, her comedy, and the drive to succeed in a business that is notorious for destroying lives and careers.
Awkwafina Proves That Her Range Goes Well Beyond Comedic Roles
2018 was Awkwafina’s year as a breakout performer. Her roles in Crazy Rich Asians as Peik Lin and Ocean’s Eight as Constance proved that she has solid comedic chops. But the leap from comedy to drama (especially when an actor is known as a comedic actor) is sometimes a risk (a la Jim Carrey in the 2001 film The Majestic. It’s one of those movies that tries, but does not quite hit the mark). As a director, Wang was able to pull out the emotion needed for the character without relying on her star’s trademark smart-ass one-liners.
For me, the scenes that proved that Awkwafina has range beyond comedy were the scenes in which she is just trying to hold it together in front of her grandmother. Like everyone else in the room (with the exception of Nai Nai), Billi knows the real reason for their visit. The words are on the tip of her tongue, she looks like she is about to cry, but she holds it in. That, as far as I am concerned, is the measure of a true performer. In those moments, she is not speaking, but her body language and her eyes speak volumes.
The Comedy Comes from The Narrative
The source of comedy in any narrative comes from one of two places: a physical sight gag (e.g. slipping on a banana peel or being hit in the face with a pie) or from the situation that is presented in the narrative. Don’t get me wrong, a physical sight gag, when inserted properly into a script, works wonders. However, there is a time and place for everything, sight gags included.
A visual sight gag would have felt out of place and unnecessary, given the narrative in this film. The comedy in The Farewell comes from Billi’s family as they try to put this pretend wedding together and hide the truth of her grandmother’s diagnosis. It’s essentially the comedy in a sitcom, but it’s on film instead of on a television screen.
There is No Romance for Billi and I Love It
The go-to narrative in many women-centric films is often a romance, regardless of the genre. The problem with this go-to narrative is that it is an easy way out for screenwriters and filmmakers. The more difficult task is to develop a female character who stands on her own two feet. In The Farewell, certain members of Billi’s family comment on her single status, but the thrust of the narrative is not her love life.
Wang could have added some sort of romantic subplot for Billi. Instead, she chose to fictionalize the story of grandmother’s illness while adding subtle comedic elements and a touching story about family. There is a love story in this film, but not in the traditional sense. The love story is between Billi and Nai Nai, which from my perspective is far more emotionally potent than the standard boy meets girl narrative.
Why is This Film the Best of This Year (So Far)?
For any film to be labeled as the best of the year, it has to be something really special. Everything in The Farewell works. A universal and low-key narrative with a hint of comedy, a strong familial bond, and a huge heart are all at the center of this movie.
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