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Review: Lulu Wang's delightful 'The Farewell,' starring Awkwafina, shows us a family divided

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Not long after Billi checks into a sketchy hotel near her grandmother's apartment, a chatty clerk asks her, "What do you think is better, China or America?" The question is played for laughs, but it comes back to haunt the whole family in the movie's strongest, most unresolved scene -- a verbal sparring match in which various illusions about Chinese national pride and the lure of the American dream are at once flaunted and quietly dismantled.

The clashes that play out over the course of this celebration -- between parents and children, East and West, the collective good and individual desire -- are nothing new. You might discern echoes of movies like "The Wedding Banquet," Ang Lee's 1993 comedy about a very different matrimonial deception, or the more recent "Crazy Rich Asians," in which Awkwafina proved herself to be a born scene stealer. She's superb here in her first dramatic leading role, using her deadpan comic instincts to underscore the wryness of Billi's worldview: Growing up with a bicultural identity, among other things, gives you a healthy sense of the absurd.

But the path that Wang clears through this well-trod territory is very much her own. A less clear-eyed or judicious sensibility might have sent "The Farewell" hurtling into solipsism and sentimentality, rather than steering it toward an ending as graceful and moving as it is ingeniously open-ended.

You will emerge from this movie thinking of Nai Nai, but you may also be thinking about Billi's parents and their tough but resilient marriage, or about a contemporary China that is changing more quickly than its identically clustered high-rise developments can keep up with.

More than anything, you are likely to admire just how deftly Wang subverts her premise and its ostensible limitations: A family that forbids itself from shedding tears succeeds, by the end, at earning a few of your own.

'THE FAREWELL'

(In Mandarin and English with English subtitles)

--Sponsored Video--

Rated: PG, for thematic material, brief language and some smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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