With Awkwafina as Billi, Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai.
A simple story of a grandmother, “Nai Nai,” (Shuzhen Zhao) diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer is complicated when her Chinese family won’t tell her, and the American émigré granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), feels conflicted about it. No one can tell Nai Nai that she is dying. Everyone knows but her. A wedding gathers all relations from other countries ostensibly for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, but really to spend time with Nai Nai before she dies.
The complexity of emotions is not limited to feelings for the grandmother. We learn what it is like to be uprooted from China and plunked down in the United States, and the overall reticence of parents surrounding death when Billi was very young. There is a well acted scene with Billi at a birthday party where everyone is singing happy birthday to a young colleague or friend in the US, and all she can think of is that her grandmother is dying, and she has to go to China to be with her. Billi’s parents don’t want her to go because she wears her emotions on her sleeve, but you can see her pretending to be happy at the birthday party, and even mouthing the lyrics. That is one of the lessons her grandmother teaches her in advance of the wedding: pretend to be happy when you see your aunts. Don’t pout when people ask you to sing. Put on the face you have to wear at these events.
The grandmother has the best part in the movie. She is lovable, uncomplaining, lively, a unifier of the family. She sticks up for herself and recognizes loneliness as a disease and conquers it with Mr. Li, her roommate. Shouzhen Zhou performs flawlessly. Awkwafina must rise to her level, and does.
Billi is a bit down on her luck, short the rent money, rejected for the Guggenheim, still dependent on parents, almost left behind at the wedding. A vivid scene in a laundromat has her landlord’s daughter, perhaps another Chinese immigrant, pointing out to Billi who has been late for the rent two months in a row: “You know if you left we could charge twice the rent.”
Billi does make her way to China, and is not the one to reveal Nai Nai’s diagnosis. The men in the family are much more mawkish. But Billi learns something deeper about herself and her feelings, recalling what it was like to be ripped apart by her parents’ expatriation. The twist at the end makes all of the repetitive scenes in the beginning worth it, that and the beautifully photographed ensemble photography of the whole family walking down the street, all approaching the hospital to prevent Nai Nai from getting the x ray results.
It is rare to see a movie hinging on the love of a grandmother for her granddaughter, and vice versa, but rarer still to see the whole family drawn together by love. How encouraging and human – More from Lulu Wang! Please.