Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 98 minutes; in English and Chinese with subtitles. Next screenings: Saturday, Jan. 26, 9:15 p.m., Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City; Tuesday, Jan. 29, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, Provo Canyon; Wednesday, Jan. 30, noon, Library Square Theatre, Park City; Friday, Feb. 1, 8:30 a.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City.
Last summer, movie audiences got to meet the rapper/comedian Awkwafina twice, in “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” Now, in “The Farewell,” writer-director Lulu Wang entrusts Awkwafina to be the central figure in her movie — and, even more daunting, embody the filmmaker’s own self in a sweet comedy about cross-cultural and cross-generational conflicts.
Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling writer who has lived in New York since her parents (Tzi Ma, Diana Lin) moved the family from China when Billi was 6 years old. She’s behind on her rent, she lost out on a Guggenheim fellowship, and at age 30 is sick of being asked when she’s going to get married.
One day, her parents reluctantly inform Billi of some bad news: Her beloved grandmother in China (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and is given only months to live. The family has decided not to tell Nai Nai, because there’s nothing to be done and the information would only make her sad.
As it happens, Billi’s cousin is marrying his Japanese girlfriend, and the family is letting Nai Nai make all the arrangements for a traditional Chinese wedding banquet. The wedding is also a chance for everyone in the family to visit Nai Nai one last time — though they all must be careful not to ask like they’re saying goodbye.
Billi objects strongly to keeping the truth from Nai Nai, and only reluctantly goes along with the plan. This allows Wang, who first told this story on public radio’s “This American Life,” to explore the culture clashes and misconceptions Chinese people and Americanzed Chinese immigrants have for one another.
Wang’s sense of humor is low-key, usually, as she dives into the gaudiness of the wedding banquet Nai Nai has prepared, if only so neighbors don’t think she’s cheap. Awkwafina neatly underplays her role, as Billi is torn between defying her family or being a liar to her grandma. The result is a story that’s both culturally specific and emotionally universal, as it gives a talented star a chance to shine.