Greetings again from the darkness. A twenty-something New York City millennial is having an other-side of-the-globe phone conversation with her Chinese grandmother. It’s immediately clear that, despite the geographic gap, these two share a close bond. We also witness the stream of lies each of them cheerfully spouts off within a few minutes. This is the opening scene to writer-director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical film … a film we are warned is “based on an actual lie.”
The millennial is China born and New York raised Billi (Awkwafina). When her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) tell her that her Grandmother (affectionately known as Nai Nai) has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and has only months to live, Billi is stunned. More shock follows when Billi learns that the family has decided not to inform the family matriarch that she’s dying, and even more shock when Billi’s parents inform her that they are going to China for a final visit, but Billie is not invited, given her American tendency to wear her emotions on her sleeve.
To tell or not to tell? That is the question. If you were terminal, would you want to know? Well evidently in China, that’s a question the family can answer on your behalf. Philosophically speaking, is this a cultural or personal question? Your background likely determines your answer. Billi is experiencing a true Yin-Yang ordeal. Is it selfish on her part to want to be able to say goodbye to Nai Nai, or is it selfish on the part of the family to avoid that pressure? We are informed that in China, each person is a part of the whole – the family and the community.
Since all of that sounds so ominous and depressing, you should know that the film does a marvelous job of balancing the dramatic with the comical. Laughs are aplenty. The comedy comes from both old and young characters. It’s fascinating to see how director Wang explores Chinese family dynamics while also exploring cultural differences – never offering judgment on right and wrong. She often has multiple people in her shots – the frame is typically filled with many faces, making it a challenge for viewers to take in all of the nuances and reactions.
With so many characters, it’s crucial that we quickly understand the make up of each. That said, the ensemble cast is deep and terrific. The most surprising comes from the hilarious, touching and grounded performance of Shuzhen Zhau as Nai Nai, in what apparently is her first ever on screen appearance. She can be the warm grandmother poking fun at her granddaughter’s independent life, or the fully-in-charge woman demanding satisfaction from a local vendor. Her scenes with Billi are the true heart and soul of the film. Awkwafina (also a rapper) was fun in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, but here she flashes talent that no one saw coming. It’s a textured performance worthy of awards consideration.
Despite how personal the story and the characters are to Ms. Wang, her film never dips into sentimental overload or cultural preaching. She also avoids the farcical nature of a film such as DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Instead, she maintains a nice balance between drama and comedy, grief and guilt, and love and respect for tradition. The clichés are lacking, but heart is prevalent. Little wonder this was an Audience Award winner at Sundance. It’s a film that’s going to touch many.
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