Beijing-born Lulu Wang's second feature film The Farewell was much heralded at the Sundance Film Festival. Set in Changchun, China, the film revolves around a family reunion after a clan hears the terrible news that their beloved matriarch has terminal lung cancer. The twist? They don't tell their grandmother she is dying. The screening of the dramedy, which stars Awkwafina, had audiences alternately laughing and crying, thanks to its powerful cast and compelling storytelling.
The Asian-American director and screenwriter spoke at Sundance to discuss the authenticity of filmmaking and the growth of Asian narratives in cinema.
The interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What was the process of making this film like? Could you give us a little background of the tale behind it?
I was actually in post-production on my first feature when I got the call from my mom that my grandmother was very, very sick and was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer with 3 months to live. But the thing about it in China is that they don’t tell the patient, they tell the family and allow the family to determine how to best tell the patient, if at all. In our case, my family decided it would be better not to tell her because she’s 80 years old and just didn’t want to depress her. Instead, because our family all live abroad, they decided to organize this wedding for my cousin as a way [for them] to go back and see her. I think the thing I struggled with the most in that moment was I needed to see her, and I know I needed to see her, but I’m not allowed to burst into tears because she’d be like “That is so weird, why are you crying?” At least that was how I felt, like I would give away the secret so I went and got a little camcorder and decided if I threw myself behind my work, that would be a good way for me to hide and stay objective as opposed to what I was truly feeling inside about the situation.
So that was sort of the beginning of me realizing, “Okay there’s a lot of tension here obviously but maybe there’s a story here.” Once I came back from the reunion wedding or whatever, I just couldn’t help but laugh over some of the stuff, it was ridiculous! I’ve always loved screwball setups and this is a real-life screwball situation. I wanted to make it as a film but you know, I would want to make it authentic with casting, language and all that. It felt kind of impossible despite coming off of my first film to get anyone in Hollywood to finance that version of the film. So I set it aside and started working on other things. I was at a festival with my short film and a This American Life producer, Neil Drumming, approached me and he was like “Look, I’m one of few people of color up there and I want to bring more diversity to the storytelling on that show and I love your voice. Do you have other stories?” I brought him the story and he brought it to This American Life.
With them they just love stories. If they resonate with the story, it doesn’t matter where it’s from. They’d want to tell it and they have a lot more freedom as well. So that was kind of the journey I recorded for This American Life. Within 48 hours after it aired I received a flurry of tweets and emails. It just went crazy. It was really surreal. I’ve had audiences reach out to me before but the big one was Chris Weitz. Either on that day [it aired] or the day after, he sent me a tweet, and he was like “Hey Lulu! What up! I’m gonna be in your DMs, check me out in your DMs.” I looked at my DMs and he was like “Hey, I’m Chris, I’m a producer. Can we have lunch?” I looked him up and I saw Cinderella and Rogue One. I was like “What’s happening here?!” We had lunch and he was like “My brother and I are filmmakers. I don’t know if you know but we made this film called About A Boy.” [laughs] He told me that a lot of people would want to change the way that [the story] is being told but he offered to allow me to tell it in my way. He also warned that if I go out there alone, I would be trampled by the financiers who have the pressure of the marketplace.
So, I was like “Yeah, OK great!” A week later, Big Beach called as well and I was like “Look I’ve got Chris Weitz, you guys figure it out.” So I had both of these teams and it was great because Chris didn’t end up having to protect me at all because Big Beach has the same principle of filmmaking.
Coming in to this project, what did authenticity mean for you and what felt most important to preserve?
I think the authenticity for this particular story was important for the story itself. There are certain films where, with the cast, you can have a lot more options and have an equally great film but for this one, I had to preserve it for the comedy itself. And the specificity of place and characters is what informs a lot of the choices made in the film as well as the comedy in the film. That was the only version of the film that I knew how to make. Of course there were a lot of bigger companies offering a lot of money that wanted to make a broader comedy where the [main] character Billi [played by Awkwafina] was actually the bride and she was the one being forced to get married. That felt like a more obvious one because there’s more drama there. I can definitely see that movie, but that is not the movie I wanted to make. The entire comedy of this movie is the fact that the wedding is the backdrop. It plays against the expectation that the wedding is the foreground. If you flip that, then you lose all of it. There is a line in the movie where the woman that plays Billi’s mother goes “Chinese people have a saying when somebody has cancer, they die.” It lands as something so funny. How do you think about balancing that sort of morbidness and humor?
My mother’s like “I never said that!” [laughs] In the first screening, people laugh so hard they miss the intent of the rest of the line because her English isn’t great. The real point is that it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear. Speaking again to authenticity, the very fact that her English is broken often leads to miscommunication which is comedic.
One of the other things that I really appreciated is how well it teases out a sort of intra-Asian dynamics specifically the China-Japan relationship. How did you think about that going into the movie and why did it feel important to you?
It’s something that hasn’t really been explored in American storytelling. Asians are just Asian. Of course there were versions where I was pitched ideas where the bride is white. There’s all these nuances where it’s a real issue for a storyteller to be able to convey the fact that the bride is Japanese to the people watching who don’t know. How do we make them understand and how important is that? Is it funnier that she just doesn’t talk and only later you realize it’s because she’s Japanese? For a Chinese person watching it, it’s obvious because of language, accents and all that. Same with Akwafina’s Chinese. If you speak Chinese, you would know immediately she’s American. So how do you represent that for people who don’t know?
We explored a lot of that in scripting and shooting but I wanted to go even further with it. There’s a lot of tension between Asian communities and it’s real, it’s funny sometimes and it’s also horrible. But I feel like it’s important to talk about especially with older generations. My grandma would be like “Do you know what the Japanese did to our family?” I didn’t go into that but there is a layer of that resentment. It’s part of the authenticity of the experience when you’re an immigrant and you leave and go back and there are these sentiments. We all feel that. Whether immigrant or not, just between different generations there’s different ways of looking at the world that’s changing very quickly and I thought it was important to represent that because you can disagree with somebody and still love them. As part of the Chinese diaspora abroad, what is your relationship like with China, as opposed to living there?
I think that there’s this weird place of being in between where you feel so emotionally connected but it’s not a rational feeling. I think we all have that connection to our childhood so there’s definitely a romanticism to it. There are so many other people that I talk to who are in a similar situation as I am where you leave and then go back to China. They’d be excited to go back then they’d be there for a while but it is not what they thought, then they leave and they miss it. There’s no right answer to which is better but there’s this constant divide in your heart of wanting both. Did going back to film challenge your view of the country or your view of how you thought about the country?
Yeah it did. My parents would often say certain things are terrible in China or warn me about this and that. In many ways I put it out of my mind because I was there to make a movie and have a good experience. If I think about those things it’ll only frustrate me. Also, it’s the job of the producer on the set to protect you from a lot of that which was a very interesting thing because my producer is a non-Chinese American and has never been to China before this. It was often a struggle for her to even figure out what the best way was to protect me because I had more information on the culture than she did. Plus we were filming with my real family in the neighborhood of my family but overall, the warmth that I felt there was real.
Everything I’ve missed about my family and childhood there, I felt on the film set. People were just so happy to be there and work whatever hours. They don’t have unions there so we really wanted to maintain an American sort of unionised set and keep normal hours but they’re not used to that. They’re so grateful and it felt like one big extended family and even now all the cast and crew talk about how much we miss that.
What did it feel like to have your actual family around as you’re filming this?
I’ve forced my parents to leave. They came for the ceremony the night before and on the set on the first day but I was like, "Scram!" They were fine, they understood. They know the importance of this being my perspective and it is fiction. It’s a piece of work and they had to learn to detach themselves a little bit. It was really interesting to cast my great aunt to play herself in the movie so that was really amazing. Because she was the one who came up with the lie in real life. So I got to really talk to her about what it was like to shoulder the burden of getting the news from the doctor and thinking about how to handle it the entire situation. It gave me so much sympathy for her and passion for her struggle. She was on set obviously throughout and everybody from the cast could also talk to her and it brought a lot of authenticity. It also made me feel like I wasn’t somehow taking advantage the family or the story. For every choice I made in the script I would consult her. That was really meaningful.
Chinese food culture plays an interesting role in your film, can you elaborate on it?
People almost expect food to be in Asian movies now. It’s like so much a part of it. Food is very much a part of everyday life, so there isn’t shots of just food for the sake of food. However, I did use food to create tension for Billi. While the family is eating, Grandma would be like “Why aren’t you eating?” And that’s so true because I experienced that. It’s like I have all these emotions and I don’t want to eat but Grandma doesn’t know that. That escalates over the course of the film up to the wedding where there’s just an insane amount of food. There’s almost a grotesqueness to it. How do you feel about the industry in this particular moment following the success of of your movie? Are we finally represented on big screens?
It's very interesting and complicated at the same time. Crazy Rich Asians is so significant for our culture because of what a great movie it is, its accessibility and the financial success. Money speaks in this industry. No one can argue that Asian faces can sell tickets. Now people like me could walk into a room and not be doubted of our ability. But at the same time, because there are still so few of us and we are constantly being compared. People go “This is like Crazy Rich Asians” and it’s not like Crazy Rich Asians. There’s not even a love interest and crazy middle class. It’s very sad and it can be a little bit frustrating as a filmmaker because you don’t get to just have your space. Like nobody goes and says “There’s a wedding in Rachel’s Getting Married. It’s just like My Best Friend’s Wedding because there’s a wedding in both.” Like other than the fact that there’s a wedding and it’s about Asians, what else do you see that’s similar? I’m hoping that over the course of time, sooner rather than later there’ll be so much more diversity that people can’t even count anymore and people stop comparing these films that are very different.