2018 was Awkawfina’s year. Co-starring in OCEAN’S 8 last summer, her breakout role came a couple of months later in the smash hit CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Soon after, she would become the first Asian woman since 2000 to host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. With a banner year like that, industry insiders would think Awkawfina’s first foray as the lead of a major motion picture, should be something akin to a big Judd Apatow movie or a broader comedy that would be more multiplex-friendly. Instead, Awkwafina’s first lead role is another Asian American story, and an unexpected dramatic leap at that, the kind of juicy role that the usual rigmarole comedy actors would take later in their career.
Awkwafina plays Billi, a woman living in New York who moved to the US with her parents as a child, leaving her extended family in China. She’s maintained a close relationship with her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), speaking on the phone regularly, and is horrified to hear from her parents that she’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She’s even more horrified when she finds out that her family decides to conceal the truth of Nai Nai’s terminal condition. Instead, they hatch a plan to mount an impromptu wedding as cover for them to say their “final” goodbyes with her. Billi reluctantly plays along as she travels back to China to participate in the ruse.
Even crazier, THE FAREWELL’s plot is based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s own stranger-than-fiction true family story, which was previously featured in a 2016 episode of NPR’s THIS AMERICAN LIFE. But no podcast can prepare anyone for the sophistication of Wang’s filmmaking instincts, exploring themes of transnational families and assumptions of culture shock, especially from Billi’s parents (deftly played by veteran actors Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), who call her “too American” to understand this situation. Billi’s journey to return back to the homeland that doesn’t feel quite like home is the fundamental theme of THE FAREWELL. It’s a melancholy that Wang and Awkwafina capture with the perfect cadence.
Stalwart films such as BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, THE NAMESAKE, and WHALE RIDER incrementally pushed the APA conversation into the margins of mass culture. CRAZY RICH ASIANS blew open those doors to become the biggest box-office romcom in almost a decade. With the confident backing of award winning independent studio A24 (MOONLIGHT, EIGHTH GRADE, HEREDITARY), THE FAREWELL continues to imbue its APA audience that they are being “seen,” in a heartfelt film that is frequently funny, on top of the heavy stuff it’s dealing with. And in the end, is what makes the film feel so genuine. The fact that the majority of the film is in Mandarin, is miraculous, especially in a major motion picture made for us but also the multiplex. Catch this film at the Festival before its theatrical release on July 12th. —Anderson Le