We caught up with director Lulu Wang about A24’s glittering examination of family.
A24’s new big-hitter The Farewell opens by immediately telling us that what we’re about to see is “based on an actual lie.” And indeed, the film’s writer-director Lulu Wang based the script on her actual experience of her own family hiding the truth from her grandmother when she was given just months to live – a custom surprisingly common in China.
Awkwafina plays doting New York-based granddaughter Billi who travels back to China to spend time with her grandmother, all under the guise of a hastily organised wedding banquet for one of Billi’s cousins. Harrowing as it sounds, The Farewell is a comedy, but one of warmth and honesty, and one that delivers unrelenting emotional gut-punches right until the credits roll. But it’s the small moments, the universal familial quirks, that will leave you floored. A loving pat on the bum from grandma. Awkward mealtime debates. Lairy wedding drinking games with the family.
There is a constant exploration of the dichotomy between east and west, tentatively toed by Wang in this absolute sparkler (one that landed a higher per-theatre average than Avengers: Endgame, if you’re going off clout, NBD).
If you can manage to peel your crumpled self out of your seat after, don’t be surprised if you’re met with a sudden overwhelming urge to call your grandmother – in fact, your entire family, to tell them you love them.
We caught up with director Lulu Wang below…
I can’t believe that this actually happened to you! What did you change for the film?
The film is 90 minutes, so I definitely had to choose what belonged in the film and what didn’t, and that was definitely challenging. And also what backstories to include and what family members to include.
How did you get Awkwafina involved? Did you have her in mind from the beginning?
We were casting and my producer brought her name up and said have you considered Awkwafina? I remember saying ‘the girl Nora from Queens who does music videos’? I mean I knew of her music but I just didn’t think of her as an actress at the time. And my producer said ‘well she read the script, and she really wants to do it and she really wants to meet with you and she’d be open to at least having a conversation.’ So we had coffee in Brooklyn, and she said that she was raised by her Chinese grandma and really related to the script. She had moved abroad in Beijing during college, which I did as well. It seem like she really connected with the material but it wasn’t until she sent in a video audition that I thought that she was perfect for the role. She’s very natural and it just clicked.
Was it important for you to find someone you saw parts of yourself in?
No, no actually. That was the thing about Awkwafina: we’re very different, I didn’t feel like she represented me, in the sense that we’ve got very different personalities and her Chinese isn’t as good as mine so I had to really craft the script for her and her level of Chinese, but I told her that from the beginning that I didn’t want her to play me because then she would do an imitation and that’s uncomfortable. I also think it wasn’t important to the movie that it was me. It was about the emotional journey that I went on.
The cast was absolutely incredible – and the chemistry of everyone is so insane – how did you go about building such an ensemble cast?
It took a while, we cast all over: LA, Australia, and China.
I read that you refused to have the film whitewashed – did you struggle with production companies?
I think that was the initial instinct from them when I first started pitching it: how do we make it marketable for our audience? When we were talking to American companies, their main audience was going to be a western audience, so they wanted to make it an American family, like ‘could they maybe like live in Illinois and then visit their mother in China town, or San Francisco or something like that?’ But it obviously was not what I wanted do and logistically that didn’t even make sense. Then I talked to some Chinese producers as well and they also wanted to put in an American boyfriend, and they wanted Awkwafina to be the bride and she was the one having to get married for the sake of her grandmother. It felt like these were all versions of the film that we’d seen before, so you can understand where they’re coming from but I just knew it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
I’m surprised it was the Chinese distributors that wanted to change it – was this shocking to you?
Yes and no. It was shocking because I think whenever you talk about east and west culture clashes, people on both sides are guilty, and that actually happens in the movie where the manager at the hotel says to Billi that she doesn’t look American. I think they thought the film was being presented as this clash between east and west, so automatically they wanted someone who visually represented western culture, and Billi doesn’t do that being Chinese-American. But then they also said she shouldn’t be the main character because her perspective and her views are too western. They thought the Chinese are not going to resonate with that, they want the character to be coming from a similarly eastern view.
It’s a very emotional watch, and it felt like no other film had so perfectly encapsulated the experience of your heart belonging in two places at once. But I feel like you never leverage the east above the west, and vice versa – was this tricky to balance?
I didn’t want it to feel like one side outweighed the other. I obviously come from the western perspective but I wanted to be respectful to my family and make sure their voice was represented, so I talked to a lot of my family members and used the things that I learned from them and the things that they said. I think everyone can relate to that dilemma, and that push and pull. I think it’s ultimately about finding a balance.
What’s been the best feedback you’ve had from the film?
I’ve had people both Asian and non-Asians saying that they related to the film. People said they saw the film and it made them immediately pick up the phone and call their grandma. I imagined people all over the world getting more calls than usual, and that makes me really happy. And it’s also really great when people have send me a photo of their whole family going to see the movie.
And how do you feel about the film adding to the rise of all-Asian cast films in Hollywood? It’s so important to the canon…
I think it’s great and I do think it’s important to add to the canon because I think that what’s dangerous is if there’s so few that they get compared to each other. I was talking to a friend about this recently, how everyone compares it to Crazy Rich Asians and they’re completely different films. I just think about how Jonathan Demme can make Rachel Getting Married and nobody’s comparing it to 27 Dresses, right? I just think we need to get to a point that there’s so many that we start to see the films for the films and their craft and not just their racial identity.