In The Farewell, two branches of a Chinese family living at opposite ends of the globe reunite. (Supplied: Roadshow)
Given how many Americans can claim some kind of migrant heritage, it’s perhaps strange there haven’t been more films like Lulu Wang’s carefully crafted drama The Farewell, in which two branches of a Chinese family living at opposite ends of the globe reunite for a few days around a terminally ill matriarch.
The idea that a concept like “home” might correspond to two separate countries, each exerting a different pull, is one that the Beijing-born American-raised filmmaker explores with great sensitivity and a commendable lack of sentimentality.
In a story based on events that transpired after her Chinese grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Wang casts rapper and actor Awkwafina (Oceans 8) as her on-screen alter ego Billi, an aspiring artist from New York living hand to mouth on the grant application treadmill.
The bad news about her grandmother, or Nai Nai, is a great shock, but it’s complicated by the family’s decision not to tell the old woman she’s dying.
This lie is inspired by good intentions — the idea being an oblivious patient lives happier and longer — but it’s a deceit that chafes with Billi’s ‘right to know’ American pragmatism.
Awkwafina navigates an emotional spectrum from bemusement and frustration to deep affection. (Supplied: Roadshow)
In a film where everyone’s body language speaks of inner turmoil, she walks hunched as if the burden of her secret is literally weighing her down.
This is nothing, however, compared to her Chinese-Japanese cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han), who looks practically constipated with stress.
He has good reason.
The family have pressured him into asking his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) to get married so that everyone has a reason to gather back in China and see grandma. Nai Nai, in turn, has responded to the news by taking on the role of the couple’s wedding planner.
And so it goes.
Wang manages to capture the essence of a place without an overly nostalgic, patronising or banal lens. (Supplied: Roadshow)
Everyone’s in the know except grandma (played by an exuberant, affectionately bossy Zhao Shuzhen), and Billi, who is told by her parents in no uncertain terms to stay home because she’s too emotionally fragile, decides to come anyway.
As a set-up, it has the makings of a promising black comedy, especially given Awkwafina’s scene-stealing performance in last year’s hit romcom Crazy Rich Asians — a film also dealing with globally intertwined lives in the Chinese diaspora.
But Wang barely calls on her lead actor’s comedic skills, preferring instead to draw out her dramatic depth, and the gamble pays off.
Awkwafina is in nearly every scene and navigates an emotional spectrum from bemusement and frustration to deep affection. Tense dinners with the extended family segue into trips with her grandmother to see about catering, and arguments with her parents over the ethics of lying.
Awkwafina is supported by a uniformly excellent cast — including veteran Chinese American actor Tzi Ma (Supplied: Roadshow)
She’s supported by a uniformly excellent cast — especially dad and mum, played by veteran Chinese American actor Tzi Ma and Chinese Australian Diana Lin. Lin will be familiar to local audiences as the gossipy, broad Aunty Maisy in SBS TV’s The Family Law, but here plays a more thoughtful character with a touching world weariness.
Much of the film, in fact, has a palpable sense of fatigue that counters the optimism of the urban landscape (witness the rows of newly minted tower blocks that slide through the frame as Billi arrives from the airport in a taxi), or the resolutely romantic aesthetic of the wedding photographer’s studio and the reception centre.
Other directors may have been tempted to push the tone into satire, but Wang steers clear of making judgement calls on some of the kitschier sights.
What’s more, she achieves something other filmmakers who return to their homeland — or the country of their forebears — sometimes find hard to do (I’m looking at you, Coppola in The Godfather Part 2), and that’s capture the essence of a place without an overly nostalgic, patronising or banal lens.
Even in brief vignettes, like a shot of waitstaff relaxing in between shifts with glazed eyes on their smartphones, her film speaks eloquently of the surroundings, and doesn’t dismiss the cultural backdrop as wallpaper.
Working with cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, her camera style is often subtle, with a recurring use of static shots to frame the action, and a tendency to avoid gimmicky visual ideas. Wang also doesn’t overuse music, and some of the film’s more powerful scenes have no score.
This capacity for restraint, at only her second film, shows considerable maturity. Her complex characters ring true, and the emotions of love, sadness, regret and anger find time to build.
The migrant experience is here in all its richness and its achievements, but also in its sacrifice and grief. It is both a moving and wise portrait of globalised 21st century lives, and those existential roadblocks that have forever had the capacity to stop us in our tracks and make us ponder the way we came.
The Farewell is in cinemas from September 5.