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The Farewell

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The set-up of The Farewell could be that of a straightforward melodrama or dark comedy. Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling writer in New York, hears that her beloved paternal grandmother, or Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), is dying of cancer back in China and the family is hastily arranging a wedding to bring everyone together one last time, all while keeping Nai Nai herself in the dark about her diagnosis.

Apparently this deception is a common practice in China, intended to protect loved ones from undue stress in their final months, but it's one that the Americanised Billi deplores. Without the permission of her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), she travels to China ready for a confrontation.

While The Farewell is both affecting and funny, as it charts the family's conflicting emotions and responsibilities, it is elevated by writer-director Lulu Wang's forensic but sensitive exploration of the border regions of Billi's Chinese-American identity.

It joins other recent movies that have shifted Asian-American stories into more mainstream American cinema, like Crazy Rich Asians (also starring Awkwafina in a heightened comedy role) and Netflix's Always Be My Maybe, but its focus is far more directly on representing the difficulties of existing between cultures.

Billi struggles with her Mandarin and it's not just the practice of deceiving Nai Nai that causes her to feel dislocated in China. The film shows us that her conflicted identity is always intertwined with her obligations to her family and the heartaches and happiness of daily life.

The cast shine in beautifully simple scenes of the family at home, preparing food, eating together and figuring out the more existential problems of life in the process of living it.

At other times, the film's reliance on soaring music or dramatic slow motion can grate a little. While trying to express Billi's emotional state, these touches too frequently only stifle Awkwafina's naturalistic performance, cutting into our time simply living with the family. Nevertheless, The Farewell is a thoughtful statement and a tender, moving, often charming film.

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