It can be argued, as I will, that, wherever Shuzhen Zhao came from (it is her *only* screen credit to date), she delivers one of the sweetest, warmest, most equally profoundly and simply human performances this decade. Holy moly! I don't care whether she was a professional actor before this or not, she gave me all the feelings.
Lulu Wang's film explores how this family, this culture in China and the East, have to be deceiving when it comes to not delivering the news of a fatal diagnosis (as someone says here, it isn't the cancer they think kills, it's the *fear* that is connected with it), and at the same time it explores how we lie all the time in small ways. Lies in family can be tricky; if you're married to someone, lying to them is wrong, or at least should be seen that way. But little lies to a parent or grandparent (for example, "Are you alright?" "I'm fine" or "Did you get the news about the Fellowship?" "Still waiting" or "Do you need money?" "I'm fine" or this or that here). those don't seem to matter so much, since it's more about protecting oneself. It may be a selfish act, but more often than not we as people have to balance how much or how little we say when keeping bits and pieces of information (even, especially even, when it's about our well-being) from those who may, oh I don't know, worry a bit more.
In other words, we're all kind of messed up in that way, and at the same time it's seen as something acceptable - hell, sometimes we can just tell when a family member isn't being truthful, but why say anything about it. Indeed early on here, with this story being about how the family of a Matriarch Nai Nai (Zhou) come together for what on the surface is a wedding but is really not deeply felt and is actually about them coming together for a long goodbye as Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal cancer (even the doctors don't tell her, or if they might, the family intercepts the info to not tell her), I wondered if Wang might go in the direction that Nai Nai *knows* that she is dying, but is putting on a kind and brave face since that's just how she is. But then she says one thing to Billie (Awkwafina) about seeing her marry one day, and it becomes clear she truly doesn't know.
What's the saying though, ignorance is bliss? One of the major strengths of this film is that it is deeply philosophical about life and death - I spent a lot of time during and after watching the film thinking about if I would want to know if I was terminally ill, or if I would tell someone close to me like my own mother, or visa-versa - while at the same time being a very warm and inviting film. This isn't a film about how the end of one's life impacts those around that person like, say, Michael Haneke's Amour; this isn't something where you feel the filmmaker being so rigorous that, regardless of quality, once it's done you never want to go near it again. The ideas expressed here are largely anchored around Zhou's performance who, I must say this again, is a total dear, but at the same time isn't someone exactly depicted as naive, she has an emotional intelligence that carries so much, and makes one think about (if one has them) of those times an elder in a family brought people together (a key point, and this is a minor spoiler but it's OK I think to share - she had to do something similar of this lie to *her husband*, so she knows the tradition herself).
If anything, the tenor of this movie reminded me a lot of Yasujiro Ozu's work. Not so much in the direction of compositions, as I think Wang is a bit less formal in style (there's one part that even made me think of Wes Anderson), but in the writing and acting it's there, the subject matter and how the parts move along. Or, let me be more specific, it's like if we had a new Ozu, but it was more from the POV of someone who, via Billi (who is playing a version of Lulu Wang), is and isn't of the culture, so the conflict is the main one but it's also there in family dynamics. What isn't said is as important as what is, maybe more-so (that scene at *dinner, where what's expected of one's life is brought up and rolled about), and in nearly every beat we we wonder if Billi might break and just SAY it (or, at one key point, the groom at the wedding).
The emotions that comes from these conflicts and the questions of how to live one's life and face a death and if we are connected to the rest of the world... it never feels forced upon us because it a) comes from being gentle with the observations, and b) Wang finds a perfect balance with sweet humor and achingly raw pathos. There may be one or two points that don't so much not work but feel familiar - a panic run Billi has near the end to stop something from happening, and a song as they leave that does feel sentimental - but I don't care. This is a great, great film about so many things, and if nothing else it's about having someone you love in your life and what that responsibility, cancer or not, entails. It's intimately and at times painfully connected to the troubles of the human condition, and (not but, and) it does so with things like a father and daughter at the wedding doing karaoke to The Fugees "Killing Me Softly".
One more time, give Shuzhen Zhou a round of applause, or just a giant hug!
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