When Lulu Wang’s The Farewell screened at Sundance, it instantly became a festival darling. As the film received its world premiere, attendees gave Wang a standing ovation and later stopped her in the streets to thank her or tearfully cry when they met her. The praise was for her baby, a film that is “based on an actual lie” and one that is close to her heart in many ways.
The story is about Wang’s own trip back to China after learning her grandmother has cancer. In keeping with Chinese tradition, her family do not want to tell Nai Nai that she’s dying and only has months to live. Instead, they plan a wedding so the entire family can return home to say their farewell. Wang’s family insist she not take the journey back to “say goodbye” because she’s “too emotional” and might not be able to hide the secret.
Wang talks about being “Tossed around” by people who either wanted the film to be Chinese and so the story had to go in one direction, or they wanted it to be American which meant the story went in another direction. This conflict, Wang says reflects how people see her and “I wanted to challenge the idea of what it meant to be American and what an American film is.”
When did you realize you had the story as you were going through this?
Going to the experience, I was navigating so many things about the culture and generational gaps. Also, I often found moments to be insanely sad but juxtaposed with something that would be funny. I thought it really summed up my family. One minute we were laughing, the next we were crying. I knew I wanted to represent that on screen.
I think the bigger journey for me was being tossed around. I’d pitch the story and people would say, “It’s got to be an American film which means that it had to go in this direction.” Then people would say, “It’s got to be a Chinese film which means it has to go in that direction.”
Those thoughts were very much reflective of how people see me. Are you American? If you’re American, you have to look like this. Are you Chinese? If you’re Chinese, then you have to look like that. I’d never fitted into either world fully. I fit into being an American. I feel very American but maybe other people don’t always see me that way.
I wanted to challenge the idea of what it meant to be American and what an American film is. It’s very much told through the perspective of an American character, and that is the crux of the conflict. She has American values, and she doesn’t understand her Chinese family, but she loves them. How do you navigate that love as well as the differences as well as that of respect?
You talk about the journey of going from America to China. In the film when you shoot in China, the lighting is so different to the lighting you use in New York when you’re showing Billi.
We shot in China first and so we established that look first. We came back to New York and knew that we wanted it to feel very different. So much of China we shot in wide static frames because the actors are performing for grandma. The characters are putting on a performance for the sake of Nai Nai. They are performing joy and a wedding, but what they feel on the inside is grief. We had these wide frames in order to capture the theatricality.
When we got to New York, it was very different. You see Awkwafina very much in her element. We had moving cameras. The colors are different. China is filled with a lot of pastel tones, and there’s a lot of fluorescent lighting. Even in the homes, you have a lot of fluorescent lighting. They want everything to be flooded with overhead light. That can be very challenging to capture on film because it’s not necessarily pretty, but it’s real and it’s part of what influences my experience of China, it’s that awful lighting. My DP and I worked really hard to find an aesthetic to capture it in a way that felt like there was a specific aesthetic. American films often have pools of romantic light and when my Chinese family come to visit, they always ask, “Why is it so dark in here?” “Why are the lights off?” Even that is a very specific cultural difference.
You also shot in two languages.
I was directing in two languages while I was in China and navigating a lot of cultural differences between my local Chinese crew and local Chinese actors with American actors, American producers. My DP is from Spain but lives in New York. My production designer is from Korea but lives in LA. So, we had this very global cast and crew.
What was it like for you to back there and film there, for your own personal journey?
It was really emotional because I’ve always navigated these two different worlds between my family and my work. I never thought my family in China would get to see me on set doing what I do, so that was really emotional.
I also didn’t want to stick to facts. I didn’t tell my DP, “We have to shoot in these locations because that’s where the real events happened.” We scouted everywhere, but just by coincidence, we ended up shooting in locations that were true to real life.
We shot at my Grandfather’s grave. My grandfather passed away when I was ten. I left China when I was six, so I hadn’t seen him. Both of my grandfathers exist in my dreams and in memory. To be at his grave with the cast and crew, it was so surreal.
Awkwafina is superb as Billi and what she does with the character. What was it like seeing her play your experiences through that lens?
To me, she’s such a different person. When I cast her, I thought she was nothing like me, but I don’t think I’ll ever find someone who feels like me. I wrote Billi, but she is Billi. She is infusing Billi with that. I didn’t see that resemblance or connection.
But what’s really funny is on the set, people would mistake us. Or they’d say, “That’s exactly like you.” I found it strange because I’m not looking at myself, but I have to trust that other people felt that way.
Awkwafina said, “I was looking at this picture of you from the back, and I thought it was me.” I guess sometimes I could see that.
You had family on set, but also in the movie.
It was wonderful. My grand aunt plays herself in the movie. It was lovely because she’d ask,”Shall I call you director? Shall I call you Lulu?” In China, everyone calls me “director”. So, we’d have all these inside jokes. We cast this actor to play my grandma’s boyfriend. The actor is so similar to her actual boyfriend, so we’d start giggling every time he’d do something.
I didn’t have my parents around on set. They were there for the celebration, but they weren’t there for the rest of it. I think it’s wonderful for them too because they’re so seeing me as a kid.
I think even in America; you have this independent life, you’re an adult and you feel you’re a fully functioning adult. Where I go back to China (I left as a six-year-old) they still see me as that six-year-old. They’ll ask, “Did you eat enough? Did you sleep enough?” It was interesting for them to go, “This little girl who we were so worried about is now running this set and telling everyone what to do.” I think it was overwhelming for them.
You’ve told a story where we don’t see very often. One that is about a Chinese tradition that we’ve not seen on American film before. What has it been like for you to hear the reaction to the film and hearing people thank you for telling the story?
It’s been so emotional. I fought to tell a very specific story. There were many times in the process where I didn’t know if the choices I made were going to resonate with people. I only knew that it was my truth, and I knew I had to channel that. I didn’t want to overly explain things to people that maybe didn’t know what a Chinese wedding looks like. I wanted to throw people into this experience in a very immersive way and the way that I often experience my family, going back to China or any foreign culture.
I fought so hard and so many people on my team fought so hard. So, you’re just terrified that it doesn’t work. Everyone put their heart and energy into something, and if it doesn’t resonate, then what? I think mostly it’s a relief. It’s really such a huge relief, for me too, to understand that my process in the film works. Also, that in fighting for specificity, the story can be universal and I have to continue to trust my own gut.
I found your opening shot totally fascinating from what we see up close and then you zoom out to see the rest of the frame.
That was very much Anna Franquesa Solano, and she is a genius. We saw the painting and we thought it was so crazy. She said, “What if we open the film with this painting?” The painting is a lie because you think you’re on a landscape, but then you realize you’re in a hospital. That’s how thoughtful she is. She imbues her cinematography with storytelling – to open her first shot as a lie. It was so brilliant.
The Farewell opens July 12