The Farewell director Lulu Wang on being caught between worlds

Wang explains the complicated questions and uneasy answers of her latest film.

August 16, 2019
<i>The Farewell</i> director Lulu Wang on being caught between worlds A24

The premise of The Farewell suggests hijinks. A family finds out that Nai Nai, the elderly matriarch of their family, has stage four lung cancer and only three months to live. Deciding not to tell Nai Nai about the terminal diagnosis (as is common among Chinese families), they stage an elaborate wedding in their hometown of Changchun as an excuse for everybody to see Nai Nai one last time.

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The only person who objects to the plan is Billi, Nai Nai’s New York-based granddaughter who’s portrayed with nuance and grace by Awkwafina. The film’s central tension is not just in the lie but also in Billi’s relationship to a culture doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in. Under the deft guidance of second-time feature director Lulu Wang, The Farewell is one of the year’s most affecting and nuanced explorations of grief, family, and identity, asking meaty, complex questions about the nature of identity and the correct way to express and share grief without offering easy answers.

The Farewell is a complicated, affirming film that reflects both the rarely-straightforward nature of life and the doubly knotty reality of life as first-generation diaspora — not knowing whether you belong to your adoptive home country or your genetic one. It’s unreservedly generous to its characters, from the validity of emotional reservation shown by Billi’s mother Jian (Diana Lin) to Billi’s innate need to share her grief with others. Wang embraces grey areas, eschewing the saccharine and oversimplified emotional arcs so often presented in family dramas.

The film’s plot draws from the real-life actions of Wang’s family when faced with her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis and was filmed in their hometown of Changchun; Wang’s great aunt Lu Hong also stars in the film, as Nai Nai’s sister Little Nai Nai. But despite the film’s personal specificity, Wang speaks broadly to the experiences of first-generation children living in western countries who grow up without concrete connections to their ancestral homes. Watching The Farewell, I felt heartbroken for Billi’s struggle to properly understand her identity and heritage — something that nearly all the first-generation kids I know struggle with on some level. To see that anguish portrayed in a film like The Farewell feels incredibly powerful.

Speaking to Wang at the offices of Australian film distributor Roadshow Films, she makes clear that speaking to children of migrants was key to the film. “It’s a low enough budget film that I didn’t worry about the mainstream,” she explains. “I made The Farewell for me, for my family, and for other immigrant children, or children of immigrants, who feel caught in-between two worlds.”

<i>The Farewell</i> director Lulu Wang on being caught between worlds A24

The premise of the film could be a hard to sell to Western audience — the idea that there can be ‘healthy’ lies. Were you at any point worried about the film alienating white or western audiences?

I wasn’t, because I’m an American. The perspective of the film is from that of an American who’s outraged by this. The journey of the story is her trying to navigate between outrage and love. I think — I hope — that everyone can resonate with that, because they’re starting at the same baseline as Billi.

This film is very much about grey areas. How do you create a film that’s satisfying without providing clear answers?

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I just asked myself What is the film about?, and it’s about how you say goodbye to somebody that you love. We’re all going to eventually lose people that we love, immigrant or not. it’s important for me to find hope in life, and communicate hope in my films. There was a spiritual quality that I wanted to explore in the film. What do we carry with us of our ancestors and family, even when they’re not with us? The satisfaction comes from a deeper spiritual rootedness than a Hollywood ending. So much of the film is about the interiority of the characters. Can we find happiness regardless of the external? If so, how?

Do you wish you had done anything differently with the film?

Definitely not. The reason it’s resonating on a broader level is because I told the story from such a centered, almost entitled place that any straight white man would tell their story from, with the assumption that everyone would understand. I forced myself to assume that everyone was coming from the same exact place as me, which required a sense of entitlement. I don’t have to explain things, because I’m not telling it as an outsider and I’m not assuming the audience is made up of outsiders. I treated the audience as if they were with me.

Do you feel like that assertiveness is something you’ve had to learn?

Definitely. It’s definitely not something I could’ve done five years ago, even. I almost left Hollywood, and I felt like if I couldn’t tell stories the way I wanted to tell them, it wasn’t valuable for me to be in Hollywood. I thought I should lend my voice as a storyteller to another medium. When I was pitching The Farewell, nobody wanted to make it — it was too Chinese for American production companies and too American for Chinese production companies. When producers approached me to make it, in a way it was my last shot. I had to make it my way, and if it didn’t work, at least I wouldn’t have any regrets. It’s been a learning process for me, because seeing how it’s resonated with people, I’ve come to the revelation that specificity lends itself to universality.

Do you think it’ll be hard to tap into that same current for your next film if it’s not based on your life?

I guess I won’t know until I’m actually tackling it. My goal is, no matter what genre or story, I’ll find a personal angle. It doesn’t have to be autobiographical, or specifically Asian-American. It has to explore a burning question that I have. I never want to tell a story where I’m lecturing to the audience. It’s an exploration of questions, and so often I don’t come out with an answer, but I’m able to see multiple sides.

What kind of burning questions do you desperately want to explore?

The questions I want to ask will revolve around humans, connection, relationships, family, and stories — what are the stories we tell ourselves and each other? My next film, Children of the New World, deals with a couple who are infertile and go to a VR world to have children. Are they giving life? Are any of us having children to selflessly give life, or is it to satisfy some kind of personal need we have, because there was something we didn’t get to have as children that we want to relive? It asks what human connection is in the digital age. If you have digital children that you and your partner bond and create memories with, is that real? Are our experiences in the digital world as real as in the real world, especially when so much of our lives are on a digital platform?

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<i>The Farewell</i> director Lulu Wang on being caught between worlds A24

Awkwafina is generally a comedic actor, but delivers a nuanced and heavy performance in the film. How do you coach an artist through shifting disciplines?

For me, it’s so much easier to go from comedy to drama than it is to go from drama to comedy. You can’t teach comedic timing, but drama comes from a place that’s real. Comedians are real people — they experience pain, grief, suffering, loneliness. and they turn to comedy as a way to survive. That was very much the case with Awkwafina where she discovered that her sense of humor was a superpower so she could dissipate tension in her family. Her mother died when she was four, so she used comedy to lighten things up.

For The Farewell, I had to train her not to dissipate tension — to actually channel and hold space for all of the discomfort that she felt, and channel it through the character. I think that was uncomfortable, because it’s like a muscle: if you’re always used to using your left arm and not your right, that’s what you’re always gonna lean towards. But once you train, it becomes second nature, and that was the case with [Awkwafina]. She recognized that, if she felt uncomfortable, she just had to hold the tension.

What was the process of making a film about Chinese culture, from the perspective of an American migrant?

It was just important for me to show that there’s no one way. Billi and her family identify as Americans — her father even says “I’m American, I have an American passport,” but his brother, who immigrated to Japan around the same time, still identifies as Chinese. I wanted to show that there’s a spectrum, because nationalism is a very arbitrary thing. It doesn’t necessarily reflect who you are as a person. The external world needs labels to make sense of things. Identity is more complicated than that. Even the grandma functions on these binaries, because in her mind, this is her family. How can she be a different nationality than her family?

The film is a mix of fiction and fact — your grandfather’s grave is in the film, for example. How did that affect the filmmaking process?

I was always aware of keeping it grounded. Including my grandfather’s grave was surreal, but it wasn’t intentional. I told my DP that we should pick what’s best for the story, and it was just a coincidence that she and I both chose the same cemetery. There’s a level of spirituality that’s really meaningful — I’m returning home, I’m at my grandfather’s grave, the last time I saw him I was six, we left China, and then he died. I had to think that there was some kind of force in the universe that was guiding this film, because there were so many weird coincidences. In the end, it was hard for me not to go, Did that happen in the movie, or in real life? As humans, memory, experience, stories — they all start to blend in our realities.

Non-white creators who make something about their own identity are sometimes tagged as artists who make art about identity. Do you worry about that happening with you?

No. I have the ability to always choose. I used to worry about it quite a lot. Because I came from a place of scarcity, I thought. There’s no opportunities for someone like me, so I have no power or freedom. But making The Farewell made me realize that, no matter what box other people chose to put me in, I can say no to them. I can always try to carve out my own path. I don’t need to go through gatekeepers or be afraid of being put in a box. I keep getting scripts that are Asian dramas — I just did that. I’m the writer of my own destiny, and I can choose what I do next.

<i>The Farewell</i> director Lulu Wang on being caught between worlds

The Farewell is out now in the US, and releases September 5th in Australia and September 20th in the UK.

The Farewell director Lulu Wang on being caught between worlds