Awkwafina's role in the upcoming film THE FAREWELL is vastly different than anything we've seen the actress do before. Since becoming a notable big screen talent, her performances have mostly been geared toward the comedy side of the genre spectrum — including her work in movies like NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING, OCEAN'S 8 and CRAZY RICH ASIANS. But that's not really the focus in her latest work. Not only is her role more dramatic, but it also sees her take on the challenge of playing a version of the feature's writer/director, Lulu Wang.
Inspired by Lulu Wang's personal experiences, THE FAREWELL follows Billi (Awkwafina) as she learns that her grandmother, with whom she is very close, is dying from advanced lung cancer. Being Chinese-American, but having spent most of her life in the United States, she has certain expectations about how the situation will be handled, but she learns that her extended family has different plans based on Chinese traditions. Sparing a person from living their final months preparing to die, it is customary to not tell the sick individual that they are sick and instead let them pass away peacefully. And this is the choice made for Billi's grandmother as well. Still, the family wants an opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one, so a fake wedding is orchestrated in China that excuses everyone to travel and see her.
Starring as the main character, Awkwafina was tasked with playing out experiences that her writer/director actually lived through, and while that could be an intimidating job for some, what made it work in this case was the collaborative environment that Lulu Wang created. Awkwafina was recently asked by CinemaBlend about playing a version of the filmmaker, and she explained the work by saying:
It's cool. I think the awesome thing about working with Lulu is that when crafting Billi, I don't think Lulu was necessarily precious to like, 'This has to be me. This is what I do.' … It's a character, and it's based off the story. And I think what was cool is that Lulu, she was always open if I had an instinct, you know? That gave it freedom. I think Billi is a vessel, right? Aside from being based on one specific person, she represents every Asian-American kid that has to deal with loss like this. I think that, with that neutrality, it does come across.
It's an interesting perspective to see on the big screen, as while Billi is certainly a character with personality and agency, she also is a representative for the audience to learn about Chinese customs in regard to death and the philosophies that drive them. It's not material that is exactly commonplace in Hollywood cinema, but it's an important part of THE FAREWELL, and it's fascinating to hear the conversation and opinions both for and against it. Simply put, it's a terrifically strong argument for the importance of diverse storytelling in film.
The second feature from writer/director Lulu Wang, THE FAREWELL co-stars Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhao and Hong Lu and will be in theatres on July 12.