July 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A twenty-something New York City millennial is having an other-side of-the-globe phone conversation with her Chinese grandmother. It’s immediately clear that, despite the geographic gap, these two share a close bond. We also witness the stream of lies each of them cheerfully spouts off within a few minutes. This is the opening scene to writer-director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical film … a film we are warned is “based on an actual lie.”

The millennial is China born and New York raised Billi (Awkwafina). When her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) tell her that her Grandmother (affectionately known as Nai Nai) has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and has only months to live, Billi is stunned. More shock follows when Billi learns that the family has decided not to inform the family matriarch that she’s dying, and even more shock when Billi’s parents inform her that they are going to China for a final visit, but Billie is not invited, given her American tendency to wear her emotions on her sleeve.

To tell or not to tell? That is the question. If you were terminal, would you want to know? Well evidently in China, that’s a question the family can answer on your behalf. Philosophically speaking, is this a cultural or personal question? Your background likely determines your answer. Billi is experiencing a true Yin-Yang ordeal. Is it selfish on her part to want to be able to say goodbye to Nai Nai, or is it selfish on the part of the family to avoid that pressure? We are informed that in China, each person is a part of the whole – the family and the community.

Since all of that sounds so ominous and depressing, you should know that the film does a marvelous job of balancing the dramatic with the comical. Laughs are aplenty. The comedy comes from both old and young characters. It’s fascinating to see how director Wang explores Chinese family dynamics while also exploring cultural differences – never offering judgment on right and wrong. She often has multiple people in her shots – the frame is typically filled with many faces, making it a challenge for viewers to take in all of the nuances and reactions.

With so many characters, it’s crucial that we quickly understand the make up of each. That said, the ensemble cast is deep and terrific. The most surprising comes from the hilarious, touching and grounded performance of Shuzhen Zhau as Nai Nai, in what apparently is her first ever on screen appearance. She can be the warm grandmother poking fun at her granddaughter’s independent life, or the fully-in-charge woman demanding satisfaction from a local vendor. Her scenes with Billi are the true heart and soul of the film. Awkwafina (also a rapper) was fun in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, but here she flashes talent that no one saw coming. It’s a textured performance worthy of awards consideration.

Despite how personal the story and the characters are to Ms. Wang, her film never dips into sentimental overload or cultural preaching. She also avoids the farcical nature of a film such as DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Instead, she maintains a nice balance between drama and comedy, grief and guilt, and love and respect for tradition. The clichés are lacking, but heart is prevalent. Little wonder this was an Audience Award winner at Sundance. It’s a film that’s going to touch many.

watch the trailer:


August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. With so much attention on this being a rare mainstream movie with an “all Asian cast”, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that it’s much more than this generation’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Director John M Chu has delivered a very entertaining, though a bit slick and glossy, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy with touches of cultural awareness. It also features a few noteworthy performances, including a star-making turn from Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”).

Based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, the screenplay is written by Peter Chiarelli (THE PROPOSAL) and TV writer Adele Lim. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an energetic, American-born Chinese economics professor, and her boyfriend Nick Young is played by big screen newcomer Henry Golding. A successful and confident person on her own, Rachel, having been raised by a hard-working single mother (who fled China while pregnant), assumes her charming and handsome boyfriend is equally grounded. It’s not until she agrees to accompany him to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding that she begins to pry the truth – most of the truth – out of him. See, Nick and his family are quasi-royalty in Singapore … one of the wealthiest families in the city and country.

Upon arriving, Rachel quickly learns that Nick’s mother is certainly not open to the idea of her son, the company’s heir-apparent, having anything to do with a woman lacking the required pedigree – namely money and a Chinese legacy. Michelle Yeoh (CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON) plays the icy Eleanor Young, and is quite elegant in her disdain for Rachel, and in capturing the relationship between Asian mother and son. Some of the best scenes are the interactions between Rachel and Eleanor – each so eager to succeed in their polar opposite missions. Facing widespread accusations of gold-digging, Rachel retreats to the comfort of her old college friend Goh Peik Lin, played by a fast-talking and quite hilarious Awkwafina (OCEAN’S 8).

The humor is prevalent throughout, with some of it being quite outrageous. Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun play Peik Lin’s parents … the caricatures of new money. Jimmy O Yang is the high-roller never-grown-up frat boy type responsible for the outlandish bachelor party; Nico Santos is Oliver, the self-titled ‘rainbow sheep of the family’; and Ronnie Chieng is the obnoxious family member everyone avoids. The comedy provided by this group prevents the dramatic elements from ever being too weighty for viewers. This holds true even with the short-changed sub-plot featuring Nick’s beautiful sister Astrid (a scene-stealing Gemma Chan) and her disintegrating marriage to another “outsider”.

Opulence and obscene wealth is on full display, leaving us a bit unsure (by design) exactly where the emphasis should be placed on the title. Although it has the required elements of a fairy tale, it’s certainly not run-of-the-mill. Cinderella allowed a kind-hearted woman to be rescued from slave labor and a basement bed. This Cinderella story doesn’t exactly rescue Rachel, who is a strong, self-made woman. Instead, it ups the ante by having her harshly judged … while in fact, she is the one who should be sitting in judgment – first of a boyfriend who was never honest, and then with a family who assumes she’s not good enough to be one of them.

In a tip of the cap the aforementioned THE JOY LUCK CLUB, Lisa Lu (now 91 years old) plays Kevin’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family, and one who has played a role in making Eleanor the protector of family and tradition. Eleanor’s guiding philosophy and contempt towards Rachel is summed up in her line, “All Americans think about is their own happiness”. It’s one of the moments where we do wish the film would dig a bit deeper and further explain the traditions and cultural differences that cause such venom spewing towards Rachel.

Director Chu has had a stream of poorly reviewed films (NOW YOU SEE ME 2, JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, STEP 2), but that likely stops here. His social media montage early in the film is a visual feast, and the camera work (by Vanja Cernjul) over Singapore is stunning. The soundtrack offers Asian versions of some well-known songs, including Cheryl K singing “Money (that’s what I want)”, a Berry Gordy song which we are accustomed to hearing sung by John Lennon. Credit goes to casting as well, since Ms. Yeoh and Ms. Lu are Asian acting royalty, and Ms. Wu and the dashing Mr. Golding are sure to see their careers skyrocket.

The director and producers are also to be commended for making the rare decision of choosing art over money. They were so committed to the film finding a theatrical audience that they turned down huge bucks from Netflix for the rights. It’s a risk that will likely payoff for them. Is it a simple love story made complicated by family, economics, tradition, and class differences … or is it a story of tradition and wealth that attempts to salvage the purity of a love story regardless of class? Either way, it’s a relatable story and one that will surely entertain most anyone who watches. As a bonus, you’ll pick up a banana joke that you’d best not repeat.

watch the trailer: