[Screen It]


(2019) (Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhou) (PG)

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Dramedy: A Chinese-born American woman returns to China to join her immediate and extended family to see her terminally ill grandmother who's unaware of her diagnosis and believes everyone is there to attend her grandson's wedding.
Billi (AWKWAFINA) is a young woman who was born in China but raised in America by her parents, Haiyan (TZI MA) and Jian (DIANE LIN). When she learns that her cousin Hao Hao's (CHEN HAN) upcoming wedding is just a ruse to get the family together to say goodbye to her terminally ill grandmother, Nai Nai (SHUZHEN ZHOU), Billi wants to attend. But her parents are worried that she'll spill the beans, what with Nai Nai being oblivious to her diagnosis, something that's been kept from her by her sister, Little Nai Nai (LU HONG), and to which everyone has agreed to maintain that secret.

Nonetheless, and despite not having any money, Billi flies there and surprises everyone, including her uncle Haibin (JIANG YONGBO) and the rest of his family who've arrived from Japan. But Nai Nai is quite pleased to see her granddaughter as well as having the whole family together for the first time in decades. With the nuptials quickly approaching, Billi tries to keep her emotions in check as she and everyone else tries to keep up the ruse.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
While there's conjecture about how animals view death -- for most they simply want to avoid being captured by predators, but it's unclear if they truly understand what happens if they are caught -- for the vast majority they have no self-awareness.

And lacking that, they certainly aren't aware of their own mortality. Sure, they might grieve over the absence of an animal relative or -- when it comes to pets -- a playmate or even their human owner -- but it's highly unlikely any sit around and worry about dying.

That, of course, makes humans unique in the animal kingdom, but such knowledge of pending death -- be that in the short term or years down the road -- might persuade people to get their affairs in order and say their final goodbyes. Yet, such knowledge of the Grim Reaper being around the corner usually isn't good for the psyche or body. You often hear about people who are diagnosed with something bad and then die not long after that, simply due to giving up.

Accordingly, some cultures believe it's best to let the terminally ill live their last months, weeks or days oblivious to their true condition. And you know what? I'm all down for that whenever it's my turn. I have to say, though, I'd be hard-pressed to go along with such a withholding information ruse when it comes to someone else.

That's the subject of "The Farewell," writer/director Lulu Wang's sophomore debut, and one that --unless a lot of equally excellent films get released before the end of the year -- should garner its fair share of award nominations, including Best Picture.

Yes, it's that good, and before you think "Oh, this is another sad indie film that critics love and I'm going to hate because it's too depressing" I have to let you know this offering is funny, charming, thoughtful, always engaging and quite entertaining for a film about an older Chinese woman given just a few months to live.

She's Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), a grandmother who's cared for by her sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong), but whose family is spread across the world. One son, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), lives in Japan with his family, while her other son, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), lives in New York with his wife, Jian (Diane Lin). Their young adult daughter, Billi (Awkwafina), is trying to make a go of it on her own in the Big Apple and has just received news that she's been turned down for a fellowship.

But the worst news is that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and has been given just a few months to live. Yet, in Chinese tradition, she's being kept in the dark about that diagnosis, and the upcoming wedding of Billi's cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han), has been hastily arranged so that everyone can get together and be with Nai Nai one last time -- albeit without letting her in on the literal deadly secret.

That might sound grim, and while most of those family members -- especially Billi -- sport that very demeanor on their faces and in their body language, it's Nai Nai who's full of life. And that's what makes the film work, both as straight entertainment and with subtext and thematic elements galore.

The screenplay is sublime and the performances from all involved are downright terrific. Awkwafina -- who's been a megawatt personality in recent films such as "Ocean's 8" and "Crazy Rich Asians" -- tones it down significantly here and benefits greatly, showing she has dramatic range.

Ma and particularly Lin are good as her parents, but it's Zhou who shines the most (a fun note is that she's Wang's real-life aunt). Don't be surprised to see her earn a lot of supporting actress award love come that time of the movie season. Which also holds true for Awkwafina as the lead and Wang as both writer and director.

Proving you don't need a nine-figure budget or A-list stars to make a great film that connects with viewers worldwide, "The Farewell" is terrific from start to finish. I loved it and thus it rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed July 15, 2019 / Posted July 19, 2019

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