By Mandy Day, Staff Writer
In life, situations often arise that put us in positions where we feel compelled to lie in order to protect the well-being of people we love. The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang, is a film based on a real-life lie meant to give the family matriarch a peaceful end to her life. AsAmNews was given access to a preview screening put together by Pacific Arts Movement in San Diego, and had the opportunity to sit down with Wang to discuss her family’s story.
Wang was working in post-production on her first film in Germany when she received a call that her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai, had terminal cancer. The family needed to see her in China before she passed away, but no one was to tell her she was sick, or that she had only three months to live. At the time, Wang was also in early development on her second feature film, a screwball comedy, and found inspiration for The Farewell in how her family handled the news of Nai Nai’s impending demise. She told the audience in San Diego, “I went to China and I started to see that this was a screwball setup in my real life. There is a lot of grief as well, and I never knew whether I wanted to laugh or cry.”
This visit to her grandmother’s hometown was an opportunity for Wang to explore her culture, identity, and her relationship to her family. She told audiences that initially, the film she wanted to make wasn’t an attractive story to producers in its original form, and she was determined to tell the story how she wanted, or not at all. Wang pitched the idea to NPR’s This American Life and within days of airing, producers were calling her in hopes of making The Farewell into a film.
Starring Awkwafina (given name, Nora Lum) as Billi, a struggling artist in New York City, The Farewell follows Billi and her parents as they deal with the news of Nai Nai’s diagnosis and the family’s visit to China to say goodbye. Billi’s cousin and his parents are there from Japan, along with his girlfriend of a few months. It is decided that having the young couple get married in the coming weeks will fulfill Nai Nai’s wish of throwing one of her grandchildren a proper Chinese wedding. The younger generation seem reluctant to go along with the swiftly planned nuptials while withholding the truth, but do so for the sake of Nai Nai. The film follows the family as they grapple with the reality that one of the family’s most exuberant members is dying whilst hastily planning the wedding banquet and rediscovering the city and people they left behind.
Most viewers familiar with Awkwafina’s online persona and acting roles will discover an actress who was given a fantastic opportunity to display her dramatic skills. She was cast in The Farewell before Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians were released, Wang told AsAmNews. Lum brilliantly portrays Billi as the oft-silent and flawed protagonist with a depth that will surprise movie-goers expecting a character more in line with the vivacious personalities from past roles. Wang herself was not expecting to cast her, but told the audience that Lum had connected deeply with the story and convinced Wang she was perfect for the role after sending in an audition tape.
“She embodied the role in a way I have ever seen anyone else do. It wasn’t even the moments when she was acting and saying the dialogue from the script. It was all these moments when she was silent, when the person who was off camera was reading lines with her and she was so present in her reflections in those moments of silence. This character is silent for so much of the movie that that was really important.”-Lulu Wang on Awkwafina
Wang acknowledged to the audience congregated in San Diego that the film is not an exact recounting of what happened when she and her family went back to China. Yet she went to great lengths to incorporate much of her family’s life into the film, including filming in her grandmother’s neighborhood, and incorporating family photos into some of the movie’s most poignant scenes. She described to AsAmNews what it was like going back to shoot and what it meant to her.
“It was pretty incredible because I hadn’t spent significant time there since I left when I was six. And to get to bring my producers and crew, it was really beautiful because they got to see my family. My family got to see what I do and it was the great union of these two worlds I inhabit.”-Wang on her return to China to film The Farewell
She cast her great-aunt, Nai Nai’s younger sister, to play herself in the film. “I’ve always thought my great-aunt was super special and has such a warm presence, and so for a while I was thinking I wanted her in the movie and I just didn’t know in what capacity,” she told AsAmNews the day after the screening. Wang was confident her great-aunt, who had no previous acting experience, could pull off the part. Watching little Nai Nai, as she is affectionately called, is an honor, not just because she has a personal connection to the story being told, but because she was triumphant in portraying a role that only she could have played.
The Farewell, Wang’s second feature film, is a masterful tribute to her family. Her writing and film-making styles are so unique and innovative, the Sundance Institute presented her with their prestigious Vanguard Award last month. Wang is currently developing a grounded science fiction film, and similarly to The Farewell, will be family-oriented. The Farewell opens Friday in theaters.
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