Nora Lum is the comic-turned-star of The Farewell. She talks China, family and diversity in the film industry
Nora Lums voice is deep and distinctive a husky New York drawl that rings with both world-weariness and barely constrained mirth. That voice, which Lum who goes by the name of her outlandish rap alter ego Awkwafina, a moniker inspired by her general awkwardness has said makes her sound like a 58-year-old divorce attorney or Satan, is now her calling card.
It is the connective tissue that runs through her decidedly scattershot career. You can hear it on the 30-year-olds comedy-rap records, in her stint as a talkshow host, during her winningly bonkers turn in Crazy Rich Asians and her poignant performance in this summers US box-office hit The Farewell. Soon, it will be reaching millions more ears thanks to her lead roles in blockbuster Disney property (Raya and the Last Dragon and the live-action The Little Mermaid, if you believe the rumours), the new SpongeBob SquarePants movie, and her autobiographical, eponymous Comedy Central sitcom.
In a nutshell, Lum is just your average Asian trumpet player-turned-rapper-turned-actress as she drolly put it during her Saturday Night Live opening monologue last year. And thats her underplaying the complexity of her trajectory. After an adolescent infatuation with the brass instrument, in 2012 she became a comedy-rap star, winning YouTube fame with her genitalia-based trash-talk track My Vag. She parlayed that profile boost into regular appearances on MTVs comedy commentary show Girl Code and then suddenly a series of scene-stealing roles in Hollywood movies including Oceans Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. Now, she has recast herself once again with an understated and subtly devastating starring role in The Farewell, in which she plays Billi, a disaffected millennial grappling with cultural identity and familial bonds while visiting her dying grandmother in China.
Down the line from LA, where she has been fulfilling contractual obligations at Disney fan expo D23, Lum denies this latest left-turn into drama was deliberate. Rather, the plot of the film resonated strongly with her. The Farewell centres on Billis touching relationship with her grandma; in real life Lums is even closer. When she was four her mother died, and so she was raised by her Chinese paternal grandmother. But she wasnt just a guardian: she was an inspiration, a matriarch and the support system for so many of us. She worked three jobs and taught me that sex has no part in what your worth is.
Yet The Farewell isnt only concerned with intergenerational ties; it is also a fish-out-of-water drama that sees Billi reckoning with her Chinese heritage. Like Crazy Rich Asians, it features a visit to China by an Asian-American protagonist who finds the world they are faced with at once familiar and deeply strange. In her 20s, Lum went on a similar journey. Having spent a good part of my childhood not having a strong identity in terms of that world, she decided to move to China to study the language. But rather than finding herself, the experience left her even more lost.
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