The Awkwafina-starring dramedy is a staggering portrayal of generational trauma, grief, and showing love through good food
Hiding the truth, if done well, can be an art form. In Lulu Wang’s poignant dramedy The Farewell, it’s also an act of love. Before a word is spoken, the film’s introductory text generates a ripple of laughter: “Based on an actual lie.” That disclaimer refers to a real-life incident in which Wang’s grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer but was kept oblivious to the news. At first, Wang’s family asked the doctor to tell a small fib, arguing that ignorance is bliss. But unable to just do nothing, Wang’s relatives then threw a fake wedding in China as an excuse for loved ones from around the world to personally say goodbye – while pretending they’re crying tears of joy, of course.
In The Farewell, the fictionalised version of Wang is Billi (Awkwafina, co-star of Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians), a New York-based writer who learns from her parents (Diana Lin, Tzi Ma) that her 80-year-old Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has lung cancer and three months to live. So the family fly over to Changchun and maintain the façade for a wedding that exudes the mood of a funeral. However, The Farewell isn’t a Lubitsch farce; it’s restrained and tender, finding understated humour in absurd situations rather than outlandish one-liners. Above all, it subtly details Wang’s experience as a Beijing-born Asian-American who can feel like an outsider in two cultures.
“Writing is a type of therapy for me,” Wang explains. “I’m always trying to break down what happened, and why I felt a certain way. But I was especially drawn to the moments of comedy. I couldn’t believe how extreme the emotions of it were, and the close proximity of the grief and the comedy.”
When I meet Wang, it’s a few days before The Farewell screens as part of Sundance London. At the January iteration of the festival in Utah, the film earned universal acclaim and was subsequently snapped up for $6 million by A24. Based on the press screening, it’s a guaranteed crowdpleaser: people laughed at the right moments, and the distracting journalists to my left and right cried throughout the third act. However, the “actual lie” took place in 2013, and financiers were resistant to Wang’s pitch. “I had a really hard time getting it made,” Wang notes. “Nobody wanted to invest in the version that I wanted to do, which was 75 per cent in Chinese, subtitled, with an all-Asian cast.”
Despite Wang enjoying success with her 2014 debut feature, Posthumous, a morbid romcom with Brit Marling, the turning point came in 2016: she shared the story of the fake wedding on an episode of This American Life called “In Defence of Ignorance”. The podcast proved popular with listeners, including Chris Weitz, the director of American Pie and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. (Weitz, incidentally, sent a Twitter DM to Kogonada and helped get Columbus made. The guy responsible for American Pie is an arthouse hero.)
“Chris contacted me on Twitter and we had lunch,” Wang recalls. “He said he loved the story, and as somebody who’s worked in Hollywood for a long time, he could get me financing. But the most important thing Chris said was that he would protect the film – he would protect me, and he would protect the film against financiers. When people finance a movie, they have their own ideas and have things they want to change. But Chris really protected me.”
For Wang, the next step involved seeking permission from loved ones. “My parents read an early draft of the script,” she says. “I had to figure out if my number one responsibility was to my film or to my family. Because as an artist, your first responsibility is to tell the truth and to make the best film possible. But I also love my family, so I have a responsibility to not portray them in a negative way or be biased from my perspective.
“The film is so much about love languages, and how that may not look familiar when you’re from different cultures” – Lulu Wang
“They were nervous about how they were going to be portrayed, but they knew what the heart of the movie was, so they were supportive. My parents saw it at Sundance and my mum said, ‘I’m not that mean, am I?’ But my dad loves it. They’re really proud, more than anything.”
Although Wang filmed sections of her 2013 trip on a camera (audio snippets pop up on her This American Life episode), she never envisioned a Three Identical Twins-style documentary. So as a fictional narrative feature, The Farewell takes advantage of the format: the melancholic mood is often dreamlike, particularly in lonely night-time sequences, and the viewer is integrated into the distinctly Chinese dynamics of Billi’s family. Which means food regularly doubles as a form of communication. Is that specifically a Chinese trait?
“Yes, absolutely,” Wang says. “The film is so much about love languages, and how that may not look familiar when you’re from different cultures. While they’re not necessarily saying ‘I love you’, food is an expression of love. It’s a big theme in the movie – not because all Asians love food, but because it’s a source of tension. The first thing you lose is your appetite when you’re grieving, and yet the one thing that makes the grandma really happy is to see you eat.”
Is there anything else about China she’s particularly thrilled for audiences to see? “Oh, the amount of joy that’s there when a family gets together!” she enthuses. “When I’ve gone back with friends, my producer or my boyfriend, they say I’m a different person around my family. It’s because in the States we’re a lot more reserved. It’s all the elements and – ah – just everything!”
As part of the film’s culture-clash storyline, Billi expresses discomfort about deceiving her grandmother. So much so, her parents suggest that she stays in New York, in case she sobs and gives the game away. It’s one of the many moments detailing the divide between American and Chinese philosophies. Billi’s Asian relatives, too, are noticeably disappointed to learn that she’s chosen to be a writer, not a lawyer or doctor. It’s a scene that vividly struck me for no painfully specific reason whatsoever. “I can’t speak for everybody,” Wang notes, “and I don’t want to say it for an entire culture, but for me, coming from an immigrant family, it’s very difficult to go find your voice, which requires a lot of failure. It requires a lot of exploration when your parents have made sacrifices, and you feel you have to live up to their sacrifices.
“My mother’s a writer and my father’s a diplomat, so they both took unconventional paths themselves. They were supportive, but then their fears would kick in. Their fear would trigger my fear, and my fear would trigger their fear. You need one of you to pull you up from the low point. When it’s really low, it’s definitely challenging. But when I made Posthumous, and it was at festivals, it surprised them. It made them calm down a lot.”
“Coming from an immigrant family, it’s very difficult to go find your voice, which requires a lot of failure. It requires a lot of exploration when your parents have made sacrifices, and you feel you have to live up to their sacrifices” – Lulu Wang
The Farewell, though, will receive a far higher-profile release than Posthumous. Even if it’s a mostly “foreign-language” film about lying to your grandmother, the story boasts wide appeal: it explores universal themes like grief, family, and the existential question of what we’re actually hoping to achieve on this sad planet. After all, a fear of death – and also the fear of talking about death – can transcend all international barriers.
Best of all, Wang’s film will roll out in real, physical cinemas. Whereas Netflix has a history of buying and burying Sundance favourites (including 2017’s Grand Jury winner I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, which never reached theatres), The Farewell will be distributed by A24 in America and by Entertainment in the UK. With regards to the A24 deal, Wang reveals that she turned down a more lucrative offer.
“Well, we’re not allowed to say who it was,” Wang says, coyly, “but it was a major streaming platform. I called my mother after we got this massive deal from the streaming company, and I said, ‘You’ve always made fun of me and said that, as an artist, I could never buy you a house. But guess what? We just got this offer, and if we take it, I could buy you a house.’
“But I really wanted to go with A24, because it’s a small film that needs delicate handling. In order to get into multiple marketplaces, it takes a lot of work to do the word of mouth. I don’t have a name as a director. Aside from Awkwafina, it’s not a hugely star-studded movie. So my mother said, ‘Well, your film is your baby, and you have to give it the home that’s not necessarily the most money, but that would give it the most love and joy.’ And I definitely felt that A24 would give the film the most amount of love.”
So, say hello to The Farewell at a cinema later this year. In the meantime, Wang has been inundated with scripts, many of which are comedy-dramas about Asian families. “I’ve had conversations with my reps about not doing the same movie again and again,” Wang says. “So I’m actually doing a sci-fi next. It’s a grounded science-fiction that still deals with family but it’s because I want to do something that’s new and challenging for me.”
As for the state of the industry, she adds, “My producers did not invest in the film because of Crazy Rich Asians or the trend of Asian films. I’m hearing now that it’s a trend, which can be dangerous. Because if a film from the Asian-American community doesn’t do well, then do people immediately go, ‘OK, so Asian films don’t work’? I hope it’s not a trend. I hope it’s here to stay, and people just want to invest in interesting stories.”
The Farewell debuts this weekend at Sundance London on June 1 and June 2