Another year of cinema has passed, which means it’s time for our second annual Golden Cages awards, the only end-of-the-year awards program featuring everyone’s favorite actor as a screaming statuette! Over the next two weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, we at Flixist will be announcing our winners across seventeen different categories for what we consider the best achievements in film in 2019. Why do we wait so long into the year to do this? Because we can! So sit back, relax, and enjoy the awards.
Whenever I call my paternal grandparents in the Philippines there are several barriers to overcome. First is the technological barrier: interfacing across the Pacific Ocean leads to some delay and some confusion. Then there is the age barrier: we take in information at different speeds, and my grandparents aren’t too tech-savvy. Finally, there is the language barrier: I can understand Tagalog, but couldn’t speak a word of it, and English is definitely not my grandparents’ first language. This is the Asian-American experience that The Farewell recalled to me, and something that was embodied with Zhao Shuzhen’s performance as Nai Nai.
The foundation of The Farewell is entirely built from Nai Nai’s health, and the fact that her family will not disclose her terminal illness to her for the hopes of a happy and blissful remainder of her life. It is the source of tension throughout the entire film, which is otherwise joyful and amusing with its depiction of family dynamics. But it is no more conflicting to anyone else than to Billi (Awkwafina), who we see is quite close to Nai Nai and talks to her regularly on the phone, even before her diagnosis (on my end, I’m usually forced by my dad to talk to my grandparents).
It’s easy to imagine why the family is in a state of preemptive (but secretive) grief over Nai Nai; she’s family, after all. But writer-director Lulu Wang and Zhao Shuzhen make her less of a plot point and more of a force in this film. She is the matriarch of the family, essentially overseeing an entire wedding and refusing to slow down even with signs of her failing health. It is quite obvious why her presence has been so impactful to everyone around her, and makes the relationship between Billi and Nai Nai all the more precious. Billi sits with her grandmother and listens to her wisdom; she converses with diligence even when her Mandarin is rough; she exercises with her grandmother, even if she can’t exactly get the moves right.
I think that it’s fitting that Awkwafina won our own award for Best Actress—she and Shuzhen compliment each other so well that I feel that one performance is incomplete without the other. It’s a dynamic that had me repeatedly thinking of my own relationship with my maternal grandmother, who lives in my family home, her bedroom right across mine. My grandmother is quite different from Nai Nai—she’s less active and a bit less aware of what is happening around her. But even in close proximity to all of us, there are still those cultural and age barriers, and moments of joy and love when we understand each other past those boundaries.
No other movie scene from 2019 impacted me more than the final farewell between Nai Nai, Billi, and her parents. Zhao Shuzhen almost looks like she wants to chase the departing car for one last moment, and even though from her perspective there will be a next time they see each other, there is something in her performance that led me to believe that Nai Nai deep inside knew the truth. In that one scene, all of my feelings and memories I’ve held for all of my grandparents flooded back, and thanks to this performance, I was finally able to see myself in a movie.