Bruce Steele: After the bubblegum pleasures of Crazy Rich Asians, Lulu Wang's intimate indie drama The Farewell provides a welcome alternative portrait of a modern Asian family. The common link is the actress Awkwafina, delightful as the comic relief in Crazy and quite different here. What did you think of this more melancholy Awkwafina?
Edwin Arnaudin: She definitely has less pep in her step as aspiring/struggling NYC writer Billi, but Wang’s seriocomic script about a diasporic Chinese family that reunites to say “goodbye” to its ill matriarch still gives the actress plenty of opportunities to earn quality (and more grounded) laughs. Shall we go ahead and start the awards campaign?
Bruce: She'll be a contender, as will the screenplay. It's has what seems to be a simple outline — a family puts together a hasty wedding for Billi's young cousin so they can reunite in China and see grandmother Nai Nai one more time without telling her how sick she is. But it weaves together a lot of diverse threads: Billi's complicated connections to Chinese culture, her uncle's family's completely separate life in Japan — the bride is a young Japanese woman who can't speak her fiance's language — her parents' sacrifices in their move to the U.S., and of course the vividly drawn grandmother. What did you think of Shuzhen Zhou as Nai Nai?
Edwin: She makes me want to resurrect my annual Best Duos column and praise her rapport with Awkwafina. Zhou is a tiny little ball of energy and a joy to witness, both for the audience and Billi. Nai Nai is the ultimate grandmother archetype — full of love and tenderness, quick to give her descendants too much food, but also not shy about doling out judgmental barbs. Were you likewise enchanted?
Bruce: Indeed. Awkwakina is the heart of the movie, but Zhou is the soul. I did want to learn a little more about Nai Nai, a widow who now lives with an elderly man who's not much of a companion to her. Indeed, all the family members seemed rather lightly sketched to me, in the current fashion of indie movies that value slices of life — glimpses and hints of the past, but no details — over deeper character dives. Did that bother you at all?
Edwin: Can’t say that it did. Part of my unruffled reaction may be due to the foreignness of this particular slice of Chinese culture, which encourages viewers to go with the flow of the family’s actions. But new as many of these concepts prove, I'm surprised by how accessible Wang makes this story. It’s paradoxically both highly personal yet fairly universal, which I find a remarkable achievement.
Bruce: I don't disagree. It's intriguing and often entertaining to see familiar family dynamics wrapped in an unfamiliar (to most of us) cultural context. Of course, the delineation between Chinese and Western society is expressed by one character as the difference between a more collective mindset and the Western supremacy of the individual. Did you read that as part of the movie's message to Western viewers, or just one character's rationalization of why the family doesn't want to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis?
Edwin: As an outsider, it’s tough to be sure — but both answers seem plausible to me. I trust that Wang has crafted an honest, accurate portrayal of a culture and predicament she knows well, especially since the film is largely autobiographical. Which moments feel especially authentic and lived-in to you?
Bruce: The informal lunch scene with the entire family — and a dog — seems the most shambling and relaxed gathering, in which the happy trivialities that bind a family are most evident. The wedding planning scenes seem more concocted, but not fatally so. The wedding itself is quite a complicated roller-coaster of feelings and mixed intentions. What's especially remarkable about Wang's work here is the evenness of flow from somber, intimate moments to crowded, raucous scenes. She handles both deftly and without melodrama.
Edwin: And so visually sharp, too! While there may not be as many stunning shots as the trailer suggests, I was still transfixed by the work of a filmmaker I’d never heard of prior to the film’s debut earlier this year at Sundance, where The Farewell was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Other than Ari Aster, can you recall a recent writer/director who’s arrived on the cinematic scene with such an advanced handle on their craft?
Bruce: I was a huge fan of last year's Thoroughbreds, a first feature by first-time writer-director Cory Finley that was visually adept and tightly told. He's now directing Bad Education with Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney (a movie he did not write). I also have high hopes for the next feature from Bo Burnham, whose Eighth Grade was one of last year’s stunning debuts. The Farewell is more autobiographical than those films, though, since it was inspired by Wang's grandmother's life. But you're right that Wang's work behind the camera matches or surpasses her work in front of her laptop. I give it a B-plus and hope Wang will continue to surprise us in the future.
Edwin: It’s a big, warm, emotional film and one that I hope people make time to see. As you can tell, I’m pretty fond of it and consider it one of the year’s best features thus far — and there aren’t that many months left in 2019. I give it an A-minus.
Grade: A-minus. Rated PG. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre