I missed the screening of this movie, and the studio was nice enough to hook my wife and I up with tickets on opening night at the Hillcrest Landmark. It was unfortunate that a quarter of the crowd kept laughing at inappropriate times. Folks, if a person has an accent and broken English, that’s not a joke. It’s merely a character that wasn’t born here. The other problem lies with the theatre. They had a problem with their speakers, so all through the movie we kept hearing loud pops that would make us jump. And in what would’ve been a very emotional conclusion, we had the last 12 minutes hearing static noise louder than the film score.
That didn’t deter my wife from loving it. I was more mixed on the film.
This is writer/director Lulu Wang’s (Posthumous) second film, and it’s semi-autobiographical. Loved seeing the screen say “Based on an actual lie” to start the proceedings.
The film captures the way a person might not feel they fit in — either in their homeland of China or in New York, where Billi (Awkwafina) currently lives (and struggles). Although we never see her experience the fish-out-of-water moments we expected, or being treated differently in either place, like she was an outsider. In the beginning of the movie, she has a fun riff with a person wanting her to sign a petition. When she returns to China, despite occasionally apologizing for not speaking proper Chinese, things seem to go smoothly.
The first scene in which Billi is with her parents (when she goes over for a free meal and to do laundry), it’s the type of family dynamics we can all relate to. Billi says something inappropriate about her cousin that’s about to marry (“Did she get knocked up?”), and the mom wants to feed her (although you certainly don’t need 12 dumplings when 10 will do just fine). Her parents were my favorite part of the movie. Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) were perfectly written and perfectly acted. I started thinking about The Joy Luck Club, and the tough as nails mother (Michelle Yeoh) in Crazy Rich Asians (which everyone remembers, also had the great comedic turn by Awkwafina). Everyone’s talking about a possible Oscar nomination for Awkwafina. It will be the first one-named nominee since Cher (side note: I should probably Google that to make sure). And although she’s decent in the role, I would’ve preferred someone with less baggage; or someone who could do the emotional scenes with a bit more heft. Often times I was watching her, thinking…hey, there’s Awkwafina eating a meat pie. There she is singing “Killing Me Softly.”
But back to those parents that were so wonderful. The fact that you feel they’re a couple that has had some issues (something about his “drinking” does come up). The way Jian wants her daughter to have direction in her life, and toughen up when it comes to the terminal illness of her grandmother. Oh, and don’t get me started on the grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen). She’s a beacon of light, and so damn adorable, I started tearing up during the movie at just the thought of her being given her stage-4 lung cancer diagnosis. Yet as you probably know from the premise of the movie, the family decides it’s best to keep that news from her. It would only make her worry and probably bring on death sooner. Why not let the rest of the family know, and they could all visit and show their love. All they have to do is stage a fake wedding (although my wife and I could never figure out if the young couple was also really getting married).
It was refreshing that Wang doesn’t just want to make this a silly comedy where the grandmother is going to find out the big ruse, and characters have to stumble over what they say. It’s more of a character study, dealing with family dynamics.
There’s an interesting scene where relatives who live in America argue with those that stayed in China. I love that it wasn’t over-written and that characters kept it all civil at the dinner table.
There’s are two wonderful scenes with the mom lecturing her daughter about grieving.
Another scene at the “wedding” with an uncle that takes the microphone, just broke my heart. I was crying one second, and then smiling when I saw the sweet smile on Nai Nai’s face.
There’s an incredible scene where Billi angrily takes out her frustration on a piano, and I wanted it to go on a minute or two longer.
A scene with Billi talking about her childhood, and not being able to attend the funeral of her grandfather — or even know what happened to him — felt forced. Scenes with the uncles smoking and talking about regrets — also didn’t work so well.
Scenes with Billi walking or driving around China and taking it all in…merely felt like scenes I’ve seen in other movies (Lost in Translation comes to mind).
Wang is a bit mannered in her filmmaking, and too many of the scenes are merely average. On two different occasions, we watch the family, led by Billi, walking in slow motion. Uh…what was that about? It was funny when the gang in Swingers (Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau) walked in slo-mo, after talking about how tough guy characters on screen always do that…but what was the point here?
What surprised me about this movie is how I wasn’t moved quite as much as I anticipated. The emotional roller coaster I was expecting…ending up feeling like a ferris wheel. That’s especially surprising, since there were times I thought of my own family (and I’m guessing most audience members, despite their ethnicity, will do the same). One of those came at a scene with a handsome doctor that Nai Nai tries setting up with Billi, and the Cheshire grin on her face as she does it. That very thing happened with my grandmother and a nurse I was talking to while she was in the hospital dying.
The film had a nice sensitivity about it, and a powerful ending sequence of scenes (that include a clip of the real grandmother).
Alex Weston provided a score of strings and piano that conveyed happiness and could be whimsical, as well as sorrowful at other times.
On a side note, this reminded me of one of my favorite movies of the ‘90s — a Chinese film called Shower. Find that, and thank me later.
This is currently getting 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, but for me, it was a mixed bag.
2 ½ stars out of 5 (my wife would give it 4 out of 5).