Awkwafina

The Farewell

06/09/19

The Farewell is mainly about the different ways in which societies around the world face up to the concept of impending death. If this sounds forbidding, don’t be misled. Lulu Wang’s charming and wryly amusing film examines its central theme with good humour and just a dash of poignancy.

Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York City, where she’s trying to make headway as an author and has just been rejected for a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian (Diana Lin), emigrated to America years ago and have made their lives there. But, when they suddenly announce they are heading back home to Changchun to attend the wedding of Billi’s young cousin, Hao Hao (Han Chen), and suggest that Billi should stay in America to pursue her studies,  she smells a rat.

Soon enough, the awful truth comes out. Billi’s beloved Grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zao), has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and the wedding is simply a ruse to get the whole family together one last time. But everyone thinks that Billi, with her forthright Western ways, will be unable to keep this a secret – and, for the Chinese side of the family, it is unthinkable to reveal the truth in this situation. Billi goes to Changchun anyway, and finds herself wandering disconsolately through the elaborate wedding preparations, torn between keeping schtum and blurting out the truth.

This is an autobiographical tale and Wang, who also wrote the screenplay, depicts the wedding in all its convoluted complexity. I cringe even as I laugh at the ludicrous antics and the ridiculous lengths people are prepared to go to to ensure that Nai Nai never catches on. I also find myself salivating at the absolute blitzkreig of colourful food that’s on display. In one scene, the diners are surrounded by a carousel of sumptuous dishes that trundle serenely around them, each one looking more delectable than the last.

Awkwafina (who was surely the best thing about the otherwise rather awful Crazy Rich Asians) is a compelling presence here and, making her American flm debut, Shuzen Zao is a delight as the seemingly indominatable Nai Nai.

There’s a snippet of ‘real life’ information at the film’s conclusion that sends me out of the cinema with a smile on my face.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Crazy Rich Asians

19/09/18

I’m conflicted about this movie before I even enter the cinema.

On the one hand, I’ve been reading a lot about representation, and how stupidly rare it is for mainstream American movies to feature Asian characters in lead roles, despite Asian-Americans making up a sizeable minority (5.6%) of the population there. So Crazy Rich Asians, with its Asian cast, writer and director, is a welcome reminder that the US is a diverse place, and that there are different cultural perspectives from those we’re offered time and time again.

On the other hand, the trailer has alarmed me. It seems to be wealth porn, revelling in images of lavish houses and designer clothes, first class this and diamond that – not so much aspirational as simple showing off. I’m alarmed rather than impressed by the excesses showcased here.

True, the film makes some attempt to comment on the over-abundance of everything, to dismiss as shallow the trappings of the 1%. But it’s never very convincing in its condemnation, luxuriating as it does in expensive frippery.

Based on Kevin Kwam’s novel of the same name and directed by Jon M Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU. When her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), invites her to Singapore – to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family – she’s excited: she’s never travelled before, and she’s keen to see the world beyond America. What she hasn’t realised, however, is that Nick is super-rich: his family are property magnates, the wealthiest in Singapore. And they have very definite ideas about the kind of girl that Nick should marry: American is bad enough, but working-class and fatherless? That’s too far beyond the pale.

Characterisation is this movie’s major strength: the actors are all accomplished and the roles are distinct and largely believable. Wu and Golding make an appealing central pair, and there are some delightful supporting characters, notably Rachel’s college friend, Peik Lin Got (played with relish by the charismatic Awkwafina), and Nick’s fashion-forward cousin, Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).

But the storyline is clichéd and – dare I say it? – dull. It’s also very American-centric, despite its Asian credentials. The underlying message seems to be that the American way  (the pursuit of individual happiness, following individual passions) is right, and that the Singaporean ideal (at least as espoused in this movie) – of destiny, of family ties and responsibility – is wrong. Rachel has nothing to learn from the people of Singapore, but they have much to learn from her. And this makes me quite uncomfortable.

I’m also bored by all the depictions of excess wealth, and irritated that this movie tries to have its cake and eat it, mocking the vulgarity of Charlie (Harry Shum Jr)’s stag do, whilst revelling in his ludicrously OTT wedding. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), whose defining moment seems to be the ’empowering’ realisation that she doesn’t have to hide her million dollar earrings from her husband, nor of the final, celebratory party – complete with rooftop synchronised swimmers, because what’s a party without them? – which seems to contradict entirely the sentiments preceding it.

All in all, I’m frustrated by Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know how it can appeal to anyone who’s even slightly socialist. In its favour, it has showcased a plethora of Asian actors, and I hope that we’ll see them again – in better films than this.

2.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Ocean’s Eight

19/06/18

I like Ocean’s Eight. I like its exuberance, its stellar cast, its slick plotting and its silliness. It looks great: as polished and meticulously groomed as the A-listers at the Met Gala, where the eponymous Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister of the franchise’s previous lead, masterminds an audacious jewellery robbery.

What’s not to like? Well, it’s just another heist movie, albeit a well-told one – a slice of polished nonsense, not particularly memorable. And it’s VERY American in its glorification of the maverick, a veritable celebration of outlaws and their crimes. Can you imagine a British film on a similar subject where everything runs so smoothly, where the thieves are as sympathetically presented, where no one bungles anything? Ocean and her team are almost super-human. All that talent – it’s a shame it’s wasted stealing sparkly stones. But still.

It’s great to see this fine group of actors given the chance to have some fun, playing roles that are strong, cool, funny and exciting. They don’t have to be seductive or damaged or any of the other limited options usually available to mainstream-movie women over thirty. (Of the eight, only Awkwafina is still – just in her twenties: Anne Hathaway, Rihanna and Mindy Kaling are all in their thirties; Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson in their forties, and – almost unbelievably – Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham-Carter are over fifty now. How did that happen?) They all look like they’re having fun, especially Blanchett, razzing around on her motorbike, exuding charisma.

The plot’s a pretty simple one, even if the plan within is fiendishly complex. Debbie Ocean has been in prison for the past five years, and has spent her time conceiving every detail of this heist. She wants to pull off this crime, not just for the riches it will afford her, but for the kicks, and to live up to her family name. If she can exact revenge upon her ex at the same time, well, why wouldn’t she? So she looks up her old ally, Lou (Blanchett), currently engaged in watering down vodka at a nightclub she owns, and lays out her idea. They assemble a team and away they go.

It’s a shame there’s not much jeopardy: once the group has been established, the film is pretty much a series of daring steps, each one successful, building towards the climactic moment when the diamonds are snatched. The boldness is impressive, but there’s not much to feel other than admiration for their cunning; it’s pretty much a one-note film.

James Corden’s appearance in the final act is fun: he’s a much vilified man, but I’m never really sure why. He’s always been a good actor, and he’s very funny here, with some laugh-out-loud lines that help to puncture the smugness that’s in danger of creeping in.

All in all, this is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours; sadly though, that’s all it is.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield