The Farewell begins with the observation that it’s “based on an actual lie,” and it’s difficult to fathom a more tonally appropriate introduction for writer/director Lulu Wang’s deeply felt, highly personal second feature.
Indeed based on a lie, The Farewell tells Wang’s own personal and family story through Billi (Awkwafina), a young artist who’s summoned back to China alongside her immigrant parents to attend a cousin’s wedding and visit with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao).
However, the wedding itself is just a put-on; Grandma is terminally ill, and instead of burdening her with the pain of that information, the family opts to follow with tradition and keep the news from her, shouldering the burden themselves.
As they struggle to maintain the ruse, each figuring out what saying goodbye means to them as they go, Billi finds herself trapped between cultures and her relatives alike.
As The Farewell expands into wider release, Consequence of Sound had the chance to sit with Wang and discuss the film’s early reception, the process of making the personal universal, the importance of cultural specificity, and much more.
You’ve mentioned before how people from across a pretty diverse spread of cultures are connecting with the film, and having this impression and reaction of, “I thought it was just us.” Why do you think that is?
I think especially if you come from like an immigrant family, there’s just stuff… You’ve never fit in, and that’s the norm. There’s stuff that maybe your family does that no one has ever done. And so it’s hard to know, “Is this the norm for the culture that they’re from, or is it just my crazy family?” But either way, if you’re in America, none of your American friends are doing this.
Oftentimes I think we get used to shouldering it alone, as the kids of immigrant families. You’re just trying so hard to work out the differences between you and your parents, and how you can see the world so differently, that you don’t even think to talk to other people. I think for me, if I didn’t make this movie, I would just think my family were the only people doing this crazy thing.
I wouldn’t necessarily even understand that it was a bigger cultural thing, or that people in other cultures, in non-Chinese, non-Asian cultures, do this as well.
Was there ever any kind of reticence as far as how much you wanted to put of yourself or your family out there with the film?
Yeah, there was a struggle for me in terms of where my main responsibility lies as an artist, but also as a member of my family who I love very much and respect very much. Whether I had to prioritize my responsibility to the movie, and to the work, or prioritize my responsibility to my family, because those two things sometimes can’t coexist.
If I’m being really responsible to the movie, I might expose things for the sake of truth that my family might not want exposed. And it’s the other way around too: if I’m just trying to protect my family at all costs, then I might not be able to explore things that feel real to me, and are necessary for the movie.
I was always going back and forth, where I would put something in the movie and then I would have my parents read it, or I would talk to them about it, just to make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting them. Then, of course, there were times where there were things that they felt should be in the movie because they were just like, “Well, you’re not putting this about me and this and that,” and I had to ultimately make an executive decision to say, “You know, that thing that you love about yourself doesn’t really fit in the movie.” [Laughs] “It doesn’t necessarily contribute to anything. When you tell a story, you can put that in.”
So, there were a lot of difficult conversations between me and my family.
In terms of your parents’ suggestions about things that you should be putting into the movie, did any of those have a particular impact on it?
My mom really felt like it was important to… she always feels like I don’t understand China. And so she would read the script and she would say, “you know, I just feel like you don’t really understand China, let me explain something [to you].” First of all, the movie is not about China, and second, it’s from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t understand China, and that’s kind of the point.
Her lack of understanding is what drives the story. She doesn’t need to know the history of the entire Cultural Revolution in order to tell this story. [Laughs] But for my mother, that was really important, because she lived through that and that’s the context for her in seeing this country. That’s the lens through which she’ll always see the country, and the actions of the people and the perspectives of every person.
So she really pushed for me to include a lot of stuff about my grandma, and being in the war and having fun in the army. There used to be a lot more of that in the movie, and ultimately a lot of that got pared down, because we just didn’t need an entire history lesson. But what stayed was this little moment where Grandma is talking with her comrades from the army, and you realize that she had another life, that she was a young woman once.
And you also understand that she was such a badass, because she joined the army at such a young age. It lets us see that Grandma isn’t just a grandma. She doesn’t exist just in her relationship to Billi, which we so often … that’s how we view people. You’re like, “You’re my grandma and that’s it.” You don’t see them as a young woman who used to have a love, and boys used to have crushes on her, and you know. Having a little bit of that, I think, was really poignant.
Especially during the writing phase, in terms of saying, “Here’s where I’m going to take creative license, here’s where I really want to prioritize authenticity.” How did you negotiate that balance?
It was just about protecting the core of the dynamics between the family members. For example, I got notes early on from my American producers that the mother was too harsh, and she was too strict, and [they] would really want to have her soften a little by the end, or have some sort of reconciliation, whether it was a small hug or an “I love you” or something, and I just didn’t want to go there. And so I said to the producer, “Well, you know, if you can make that happen in my real life, then I’ll put it in the movie.” And he was like, okay, touché, touché. And we laughed about it.
Those were the things that were important, where I wasn’t trying to tack on anything that felt good in the American, or sort of Hollywood-ized way. How do we come to a conclusion in a different way? In life, so often we’re not given a real conclusion. We’re the ones that have to come to terms. It’s not like we force other people to change and say “I love you” and everything is good. It’s that we have to come to terms, to accept the love for what it is and how the relationship works.
The pathos of the family’s situation seems to find its way into even the lightest, most comic scenes. When you were putting the film together, especially going from the This American Life project [in 2016] to bringing it to film, how did you work toward articulating those shifts in tone?
I just always had an eye on what the core of the scene was. Sometimes that moment of pathos kind of comes out of nowhere and just hits you. And that’s what the experience was. You sometimes forget, in a way, because everything looks normal on the outside and you can easily forget why you’re actually there, that you’re going to lose this person. So it was about finding that moment when Billi or whoever the other characters are in the scene are reminded.
Sometimes it comes from an external thing, like when Grandma says something that reminds you, and sometimes it comes from the inside. You just suddenly remember. And so I wanted to visually portray those moments where everything’s funny, everything’s back as it was and everything’s normal in the dynamic, until that reminder comes and it just kind of sideswipes you like a truck. And then that’s all you can think about.
How did you go about representing the specter of death throughout the film, whether it’s the sequence in the cemetery, or the moment where Billi sees her grandfather for a fleeting moment?
I just stuck to what I felt was authentic and meaningful in my own experiences. I also paid a lot of attention to this idea of love languages in the film, because I think as an American, love sounds and looks a certain way in our culture. Then you go back to China and you don’t recognize the love or the way that people communicate love, because it looks and sounds different than what you are used to, or what you maybe even want.
And so, through all of the scenes, whether it was with food, whether it was the way that they were going through these rituals, it was a way of expressing love for each other, for the family. I just wanted to explore how it might seem ridiculous or you may not fully understand it, but it doesn’t mean that the love is any less valid.
With the film, you very much have a sense that when Billi and her grandmother are together, there’s a difference in their conversations from Billi’s conversations with anyone else in the family. They don’t have to perform for one another. How did you go about capturing that particular dynamic in the film?
It was important to establish their dynamic from very early on, which is why we had the phone calls between the two of them, to understand the sort of unconditional love that Billi has from Grandma. I think especially in an Asian family, and in an immigrant family, parental love can often be conditional.
Americans love to talk about how there’s unconditional love in family, but it doesn’t always feel that way, right? It’s like, “You guys sacrificed a lot to come here and give me a better life, and therefore I have to be worthwhile, and I have to perform. My life has to measure up in a way that feels worthwhile.”
With Grandma, it isn’t that. She’s just happy to see her granddaughter, and she loves all of these things about Billi that aren’t about her accomplishments. And so when they’re together, there’s a natural chemistry. Also, Grandma’s getting older, and regardless of what she knows or doesn’t know about her own health, as grandparents get older, there’s a wisdom there that they want to impart.
When your granddaughter lives across the world, you never know if it might be the last time. And so there’s a really natural chemistry that I wanted to kind of isolate. They’re like these little pockets of oasis, separate from the rest of the movie, because Billi in many ways can just be herself with her grandma. But then she also can’t, because there’s the one thing that she can’t talk about.
What’ve your family thought of the film so far, among those who’ve seen it?
My parents saw it at Sundance. My aunt, she just saw it at a screening. They just think that it feels pretty authentic. It’s not their point of view, obviously. They experienced the whole thing from a very different point of view, and I could probably make a movie from each of their perspectives. But I think, for the most part, they just all felt pretty emotional about it.