Awkwafina started out as a rapper, first releasing her work on YouTube before getting a record deal. Of course ‘record deal’ is an inaccurate and antiquated term and if you are the kind of person who still uses it then it is entirely possible that you won’t have heard of Awkwafina. Your cultural ignorance notwithstanding though, last year she properly launched a career as a comedy actor with memorable turns in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Without taking anything away from the importance of this last movie in terms of representation, I thought she and the film were a little overrated. Now though she has kind of reinvented herself again by playing the dramatic lead in The Farewell and on this occasion I couldn’t possibly rate her high enough. The Farewell and Awkwafina’s performance in it are brilliant.
Actually I take that back, brilliant isn’t quite the right word. Brilliant suggests surprising power and luminescence. The narrative of Inception was brilliant, the emotion of If Beale Street Could Talk was brilliant, Olivia Colman was brilliant in The Favourite. This film, its story, its script and its characters are more understated than that. The Farewell and Awkwafina’s performance are lovely.
That isn’t to say that The Farewell is a mushy hug of a movie. It embraces you but it isn’t without its edge, demonstrably not. The plot revolves around a Chinese family who have all agreed not to tell the Grandmother the news of her own fatal illness, the concern being that the fear would kill her faster than the cancer. Still though they all want to gather to say goodbye so they mock up the wedding of a cousin and his slightly bewildered new girlfriend and everyone travels back to Changchun for the huge gathering. There is charm and humour in this but inevitably everything is tinged with a certain sadness. While this sense of melancholy never goes away it is a pleasure spending time with all of the disparate relations and the tonal balance maintained by writer/director Lulu Wang is masterful. On occasion as a viewer you are laughing as the people on screen are crying and quite possibly vice versa. Awkwafina is restrained throughout (not a way you would describe her performance in Crazy Rich Asians) but you are never in doubt of how her character Billi is feeling and the emotions and familial experiences played out on screen cannot fail but prove evocative of the audience’s own, whatever they may be. There is universal experience behind every scene.
It is made clear at the start is that the narrative is strongly reminiscent of Wang’s memories of her own Gran and how her family handled a similar situation. This is a very real story based on an actual lie and this element is key to the honesty of events all the way through. In fact the autobiographical aspect proves essential in the film’s very last seconds and this almost throw away moment really hits you and reframes everything that has come before.
I cannot recommend The Farewell enough. It is a movie about family and love and all the ups and downs brought by both. It is wonderfully affecting and rewarding. Also, while it won’t have a fraction of the success of Awkwafina’s other movies, it is probably as important in terms of putting an under represented culture into multiplex cinemas. Just like her last film this starts in America and moves to South East Asia but unlike that film only a small proportion of the dialogue is in English. This is the Asia of most of the Asian population’s existence too, not just the crazy rich ones.
It’ll be interesting to see, with her career taking off in new directions, if she sticks to the stage name like Lady Gaga or drops it like Dwayne Johnson. Be it Awkwafina or Nora Lum though, remember the name.
Do you know what? Forget what I said before; she is brilliant.