Lulu Wang’s film is extraordinary on many levels. Too Asian to get US funding; not American enough with no American characters to get Chinese funding (Crazy Rich Asians bombed in China). Wang had difficulty getting funding until Christopher Weisz came along. But she stuck to her guns in this autobiographical cross-cultural story about a Chinese American girl, Billi, who is devastated about the impending death of her grandmother.
Billi’s reaction to the family’s decision to keep the diagnosis secret from Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother) is a metaphor for all the cultural divides between the diaspora Chinese and their left-behind relatives. ‘Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die,’ says Billi’s mother (Diana Lin). ‘But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear’. Under the pretext of a family wedding the whole family reunited in Nai Nai’s home town, where Billi and her family lived until she was six when they emigrated, and where she has happy memories of Nai Nai’s house and garden. Instead she returns to a skyscraper city with Nai Nai living up several flights of stairs in a modern apartment block.
Akwafina, fresh out of her comedy success in Crazy Rich Asians, emanates Billi’s disapproval and sadness at the cultural conflict raging around her. She is appalled that the family is conspiring to keep Nai Nai’s illness from her, and the subterfuge of the charade that is the wedding as an enabler for fond farewells; she is deeply saddened by the concrete jungle that has covered her ancestral home.
These cultural differences are argued out over (another) family dinner when Billi’s mum taunts her husband’s niece for applauding the ability to make millions in China, while wishing to send her obese son Bao (product of the one-child policy and a common view in China) to an America University. ‘You think the moon is rounder out of China’ is the take-away line – and so true as a reflection of immigrant aspirations. The Chinese can’t understand this ambiguity towards the motherland, where progress has clearly benefitted so many people, while émigrés struggle in their new countries.
Lulu Wang, who wrote and directed, avoids the temptation to make this another comedy like CRA despite the playful opening credit ‘This film is based on a lie’; instead she goes for the family drama, achieved on a $4 million budget, with many set pieces based on conversations – all in Mandarin. There’s barely an English word spoken. Akwafina is superb as Billi, whose confident US persona changes the minute she arrives in China, literally burdened by the terrible secret which hunches her up and changes her smile to a forlorn and tearful expression.
Zhao Shuzhen lights up the screen as Nai Nai, the feisty, funny and adoring grandmother who is devoted to her granddaughter, full of admonishments for being single and lessons in how to be respectful at the wedding. Her wisdom is such that you suspect all along that she knows she is being played – after all she lied to her husband when he had cancer, and she is well-aware of the custom. Just like paying people to cry and funerals and giving the dead paper money cigarettes, liquor and food, carefully opened and bit into to prevent theft. The bond between them is immortalised in the scene where she is teaching Billi Tai Chi in the yard of the communal apartment block.
These two are brilliantly supported by the Chinese family – from Nai Nai’s unperturbable sister, Little Nai Nai (who plays herself whatever that means), to the tortured uncle and Billi’s father, both sharing guilty smoking and drinking secrets; her uptight mother, who was ‘never good enough’ and who has struggled to keep the family together; the Chinese relatives so proud of what they have achieved with their greedy screen-addicted son, who eats everything is sight; the reluctant wedding couple, with the poor Japanese bride totally bemused throughout, and the ‘artistic’ groom (read gay?) being pushed through the hoops of a traditional Chinese wedding banquet with great big crabs, karaoke and far too much booze.
Having spent a lot of time in China, Wang’s attention to detail (the new yet sleezy hotels where the lifts don’t work and are host to prostitutes and gambling dens, the state-of-the-art hospitals, the old people surviving in their spanking new neighbourhoods) and characterisation, plus the carefully chosen sets, really rang true and reflect the underlying yin and yang of society. A masterpiece of film-making.