Director Lulu Wang’s new film The Farewell is based, transparently so, on an “actual lie.” Several years ago, Wang’s parents told her that her grandmother, who she calls Nai Nai, was unknowingly dying of cancer. But rather than tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis, Wang’s parents and extended family decided not to. Instead, they staged an elaborate fake wedding for Wang’s cousin as an excuse to get the family to Changchun, China, to see Nai Nai one last time.
It’s the inner conflict Wang felt keeping up the charade, as well as the conflict she experiences with her parents and family members concerning the lie, that inspired her to report out her experience for a 2016 segment of This American Life, which then became the basis for her film The Farewell. Awkwafina plays Billi, who is forbidden at first to come on the trip because her parents don’t think she’ll be able to keep in her emotions. In Wang’s film, a complicated story unfurls, one that questions the different ways people are expected to grieve and accept death.
Here, Wang talks to Jezebel about not compromising on her vision for the film, asking questions, and processing the lie through her film.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: You held onto your vision for this movie, that you wouldn’t whitewash the cast, that it would be true to your story, for a long time, because many people wanted you to change direction. How did you stick to your idea and not compromise on this film?
LULU WANG: I think the fact that this is my second film really helped, because I knew just how hard it is to make a film. And this is too personal of a story—I couldn’t make those compromises. I was also sort of at the end of my rope with Hollywood. I was like, you know, if I can’t tell the stories that I really want to tell, then maybe I don’t want to be a filmmaker. It’s more important to put the right kinds of stories out into the world than it is for me to hold onto what that format should be.
For this particular case, I decided not to make the film at all if I couldn’t make the film I wanted to make. That’s why I did This American Life, because I had written a script already and had started developing the idea, but people kept being like, “Well, is it a Chinese movie or an American movie?” Based on what my answer was, they would put it into a totally different box, neither of which was the film I wanted to make. When I did This American Life, it really solidified all of these feelings that I was having, because they didn’t ask me these weird questions like, “Is it Chinese or American?” They just said, “Tell me more about this story. This is fascinating.” I thought, This is why I became a storyteller, and I held onto that feeling for the film. That’s when I knew if I was going to turn it into a film, I [wasn’t] going to Hollywood-ize it, because the purity of the story is what resonates with people.
What do you think it’s going to take for Hollywood to stop relying on those boxes of “This an American movie” “This a Chinese movie”?
I think if they start to actually see what the landscape of America is instead of making assumptions. People all over the world assume what “American” is because if they’ve never been to America. All they’ve seen is the media. When I go to China and I say I’m American, Chinese people will say, “Well, you don’t look American.” Their perception of what America looks like comes from the media. We are very privileged because we actually live in this country. And so, let’s represent the world we live in as opposed to continuing to replicate the things we’ve seen on screen.
When you’re making a movie like this that so closely mirrors your real life experience, even including members of your family in the film, how did you handle their expectations for the story versus your own?
You know, I tried to just avoid my family’s expectations [laughs]. Their perspective of the whole thing is very different. Obviously, they went through their own traumas. But at the end of the day, because we’re different generations, we have different relationships to China versus America. I’m never going to fully satisfy them, because they’ll always feel like I’m a little bit ignorant of China, and I’m always going to feel like they don’t understand me as an American. I told them that pretty early on: If I ask questions about certain things, of course I want your feedback, but there’s other places where you know I don’t need feedback, because not understanding is part of the texture of the story. Like if I didn’t understand then, that’s what gave me all of these emotions, right? That’s why I was so confused and scared and uncertain. If I had understood what you’re explaining to me right now, then I wouldn’t have maybe felt those things.
It’s an ensemble piece, and I wanted to give every character their moment. I made sure as I was writing that every character had their moment of not reconciliation with the lie necessarily, but their moment where we see into their soul, where we see that they had their reasons and their justification for why they were telling this lie.
It’s interesting you talking about not understanding it then and how that was a part of the texture of the film. I feel like filmmakers or storytellers who take a memoir approach to a story, there’s a temptation to make sense of it in retrospect, to understand the past. Do you feel like in making this film you came to a different place of understanding the lie?
I think I have come to an understanding of the lie, and more so the bigger question of how much do we fully ever understand anyone and ourselves. I think I’ve definitely had progress in it and understand my family much more and also the culture much more. But I also came to this realization that it isn’t my job to find answers, but it is my job to ask questions. I think it’s all of our jobs to ask the questions, because if this hadn’t happened to me there are assumptions that I would have made and questions I wouldn’t even know to ask.
In the experience itself, when I was going through it, I didn’t ask a lot of questions, because I was so in my own feeling, and I was feeling so justified in my injustice. I [was] like, This is so wrong and unethical. I was so busy fighting the whole time. It wasn’t until I started working on the radio story and I started working on the movie that I even started to ask questions, because I got some distance. I was like, okay, if I’m going to tell the story correctly, I need to be a journalist and I need to investigate. That’s how I was able to put together the film, which allowed me to understand everyone better. But in real life, we don’t do that. We all just hold onto our feelings.
In the film, Billi expresses grief freely. Her parents are worried she’ll cry and ruin the lie, whereas her mother in the film sort of disparages that, saying, “I don’t scream and cry like you,” when it comes to grief. How much is this a film for you about cultural differences when it comes to talking about death?
Very much. I think for me it was less about the specificity of how we talk about death, but more just how people deal with emotions. I think part of that is nature, based on people’s personalities, but also so much is nurture, like men versus women, you know, like what’s socially acceptable and what’s expected of you. Like in China, it’s expected of you to put on this display of your emotions, and if you don’t put on that display, then people will accuse you of not feeling those feelings. It’s very performative. The whole movie is about the performance of emotions and made me think a lot about when our emotions are performative, when are they real, and when is it better to be stoic, and when is it better to be transparent.
I struggle with that myself all the time. I think that we’re living in a time where millennials are all about transparency, and sometimes it’s a little too much with oversharing that it maybe borders on narcissism. Like, Well, everybody must know everything that I’m feeling, which is very American. You know, that’s me saying, you know, “I must say goodbye [to my grandmother], I must tell her the truth.” And my family saying, “That’s not about her; you’re just doing it for you, because you’re taught it’s all about your needs.”
Watching the film, it felt like for Billi, this was more than just losing her grandmother, it was the potential as well of losing this very physical connection to China, where she has these childhood memories and this history. What story did you want to tell about Billi’s connection to China?
I think it was really a story about loss. In some ways, you have this memory of China that’s connected to childhood, and so the loss of China is the same as the loss of childhood, because that’s what Billy connects it to in her mind, right, but really that I connected to as well. There’s a romanticization, but when you go back as an adult and the country has changed so much and continues to change so much, you see the country through a different lens. It’s like every time you go back, you just can never find home again. You can never find that feeling or that thing that is in your memory of what childhood once was.
Coming out of a project like this that’s so personal, that you’ve been wanting to tell for so many years now, what kinds of stories do you want to tell next?
I think that’s a question I have for myself as well. I just need to tell stories that explore questions, that don’t have answers, or that I’ve tried to find an answer for, but I know that there’s not really an answer. It’s the questioning and it’s the exploring that is the journey. I especially want to tell stories that are just nuanced, that open our minds to gray zones in life. I’ve spent my entire life navigating different cultures and different languages and so I think it’s just my instinct to be a diplomat in many ways, to try to get people on this side to understand that side, and that side to understand this side.