★★★★★ - STUFF
- Despite leaving China when she was just six, Billi Wang (Awkwafina) still calls her Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) whenever she can.
Now 31, the aspiring New York writer worries about her Grandmother's health, while she in turn expresses concern that her grandchild isn't eating right and hasn't yet met someone to "look after her". But while it's true that Billi is behind on her rent and just been turned down for a scholarship, it's news from Changchun that sends her into a tailspin.
After much cajoling, Billi's father Haiyan (Tzi Ma) reveals that Nai Nai has been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. She has only three months to live, but the family has decided that it is better not to tell her. "There's an old Chinese saying, 'it's not the cancer that kills, it's the fear'," he solemnly intones.
In order to gather the family together to say goodbye (without saying goodbye), Haiyan and his brother have persuaded Billi's Japanese-based cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) to fast-track his wedding (he's only been dating his Japanese girlfriend three months) and hold it in Changchun. Only Billi's not invited. "Everyone thinks it's better if you don't go – you can't hide your emotions," Billi's mother Jian (Diana Lin) informs her. However, Billi has no plans to heed such advice.
As the opening card so eloquently puts it, this fabulous family drama is "based on an actual lie".
Drawing on her own experiences, writer-director Lulu Wang has crafted a compelling, heartwrenching (and warming) story which will strike a chord with cinemagoers of all ages. A welcome return to the kind of thought-provoking, emotional, very human drama that used to be a regular sight in cinemas in the 1980s and '90s, it's also arguably a movie that wouldn't have been had it not been for the success of last year's Crazy Rich Asians. That said, the Wang family and their surroundings couldn't be more different to the Singapore-based Youngs. Rather than sunshine filled estates and extravagant shopping sprees, the backdrop here is imposing tower blocks and rain. And instead of celebrating their fast cars and revelling in their walk-in wardrobes, this family crowds around a dinner table groaning with mouthwatering homemade delights.
However, like Crazy Rich, this is a story that explores the differences between America and Asia. There's a sense of an inferiority complex amongst all the service workers Billi encounters in China, even as she points out the problems with the country where she now resides.
Then there's also the universal language of the omissions and falsities we tell each other in order to "protect" loved ones from awful truths. Nai Nai's family believe they are doing her a massive favour, but Billi isn't so sure. Winningly, the answer isn't as black-and-white as mainstream Hollywood would usually have you believe.
At the heart of it all, is a terrific performance from Awkwafina. Best-known for her scene stealing turns in Ocean's Eight and Crazy Rich, here she adds an extra dimension of nuance and gravitas as a young woman clinging to her past and trying to forge her own path in life. It's a redefining role that hopefully should be richly rewarded in the upcoming awards season.
-JAMES CROOT, STUFF