‘The Farewell’s Lulu Wang Talks Bringing Humor To Grief And Exploring Chinese Identity

Lulu Wang, director of "The Farewell". Evan Agostini/Shutterstock

Writer and director Lulu Wang’s forthcoming film The Farewell has been buzzy since it premiered at Sundance. It sold to A24 after its positive ovation at the fest and since has made its rounds, gaining more and more momentum as it ramps up for its July 12 release. The film’s star Awkwafina is getting shine for her lead performance and Wang has staked her claim in Hollywood showing that she can helm a film as good as any white man.

Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in “The Farewell”. Casi Moss/A24

The film is billed as a story based on a lie — and is based on Wang’s real life (her great aunt Lu Hong actually appears in the film). Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) learns that her Nai Nai (her grandma played by Zhao Shuzhen) in China only has weeks to live. Her father (Tzi Ma), mother (Diana Lin) and entire family knows, but they have decided not to tell her. In order to make sure she’s happy in her final weeks, the entire family returns to Changchun — including a reluctant Billi who wants to tell the truth — under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad. While there, Billi attempts to navigate a minefield of family expectations, reconnect with her culture and celebrate her Nai Nai.

Wang, like Billi, was born in China and raised in Miami, giving her a unique perspective on identity and it reflects in her work. “I immigrated when I was six so I had to learn English and I was always an outsider from a young age, and so I think my drive was that I wanted to fit in,” Wang told Deadline. “I wanted to just fit in and belong and it was also the thing that my parents wanted. My parents very much raised us to be American. I would talk to them about that later as I got older. I would say, ‘Why why did you do that?’ Because so many other of their friends, like Chinese families, raise their kids to remember you’re Chinese, remember your roots, and wanted to raise their kids to be more Chinese.”

She said that her parents wanted their family to assimilate and feel American because they wanted them to “feel whole in this country” because they always felt divided. Wang added, “They feel like half of their heart will always be in China because their history is there, their family is there, and you can’t erase that, but they also have to move forward in this new country, and they’ll always be divided because they came at such a later age.”

The film is an emotional journey of tears and laughter and as someone who very recently lost their grandmother, it hits a very specific chord with me and, without any risk of sounding cliche, captures the need to cherish moments with your loved ones — specifically your own Nai Nai, Abuela, Lola, Nana or grandma (and yes, I cried during the movie and interview). Wang’s Nai Nai is still alive today — but hasn’t seen the film because she still doesn’t know.

The Farewell thoughtfully explores that moment where grief and sadness collide with comedy and humor. Wang talked to Deadline more about this, how the film dives into unpacking identity in the Chinese diaspora, the landscape of Asian American films after Crazy Rich Asians and the ideal post-diversity world of Hollywood.

Awkwafina Casi Moss/A24

DEADLINE: What was it that made you want to tell this very personal story?

LULU WANG:  What made me want to tell the story was just the intersection of the proximity of humor and grief and sadness. It was really surprising to me, you know, the range of emotions that we all went through in this period of like three or four days.  I think that it’s a story that has a sort of bigger setup — it’s sort of this ridiculous setup, but through the setup, through the conceit, it really explores all of these layers of things that I’ve always wanted to explore about my own identity, about being part of the Chinese diaspora, about what it means to be an immigrant and also just being able to show modern China and the changes that are happening there and what that means to me every time I go back and things are different or things that I love are gone.

DEADLINE: A lot of the film is subtitled and the majority that takes place in China. Did you get any kind of pushback because many would see it as a foreign film?

WANG: Yeah, I mean that was the first question people would always ask when I first started pitching the movie: “Is this an American film or is this a Chinese film?” It’s a trick a question, right? Because if I said American film, but then I said I wanted it to be subtitled. People would say, “Well then, it’s not an American” but then if I told Chinese investors it’s a Chinese film, they would say, “Well then it can’t be told from Billi’s perspective, because her perspective is too Westernized and a Chinese audience is not going to resonate with why she even has a problem with all of this. It felt in a way very confrontational because it’s like this question for me: “Are you American or are you Chinese?”

DEADLINE: I think that’s very much almost any kind of children of immigrants. Right? We’re considered third culture kids.

WANG: Yes — the reality is I’ve never felt like I was fully one or the other and if I had to pick one I would probably say more American on a fundamental level, right? I’m comfortable, culturally I’m American, my perspectives are American, but from an aesthetic perspective do other people look at me and think that I’m American? There was all of that and so I knew that I had to tell this movie from exactly where I stand — which is in the middle. That’s basically what the movie’s about — definitely it was sort of about like, “Well, can you compromise this a little bit so we can make it a little bit more accessible? Can you compromise that?” I had to fight for all of those details to not compromise them and to stay firmly in my own point of view.

I, honestly, also had to forget about all of that while I was making the movie. I don’t know how to make an Asian American film. You know what I mean? So as I’m approaching the writing and the directing, all I can say is I have to hang onto the textures of this family, of this life, of the locations that I know so well, but I’m not going into it thinking how do I make it more Asian, more Asian American, more American. I had to lose all of those labels and make it, as any filmmaker who’s making a film about family would, just about family, about humans, about a relationship between a granddaughter and her grandmother.

Diana Lin and Awkwafina. A24

DEADLINE: You bring up a great point in terms of Asian American stories. When Crazy Rich Asians came out it became a cinematic benchmark and now there is a call for more Asian American stories in Hollywood. The film has become a blockbuster success and now everyone seems to be looking for Asian American content in this weird way. At the same time, there is this paranoia that it’s only a small window of opportunity and the window will close soon and that’s why Asian Americans are clamoring to put content out. Do you kind of feel that way as well?

WANG: Yeah, I think that’s the danger of it, right? Because if Asian American content is seen as a trend, the way that like leggings are in, then that’s not true representation or inclusion. The mainstream doesn’t have to worry about that. They don’t have to go, “I’m in today and out tomorrow” because they just get to be human. They just get to be stories. My goal is to work towards making films that are just representative of the landscape of America as opposed to further dividing all of our communities into these subcategories. Because in many ways by putting us into these subcategories, we’re always going to be otherized. We’re always going to be the niche or the hot trend for the moment, when in fact, that’s not how I look at it and that’s not how I approached this film.

My producers, to give them credit, didn’t greenlight the film because of Crazy Rich Asians because it was before Crazy Rich Asians had even come out. They greenlit the film because they heard the story on This American Life and they were moved by it. That’s what it was about. It wasn’t about the aesthetics and it was only after they were moved by it and we just started talking about it that they started to think about the marketing and is a logistics of it. Like, “Oh gosh, yes, it’s going to be primarily Chinese and subtitled. How are we going to sell this to the powers that be, the marketing teams and the distributors.”

I think, so for me, that is is the goal. That we just aren’t creating categories, Black American, Asian American — we’re all American. To be American is to be a hyphenate and so let’s just embrace all of it. Because we’re all so different. Not every Asian American is the same and has the same experience that Billi has in The Farewell and so my story is one specific story of an immigrant in an Asian American, but there are so many others, and I just want us to erase as many boundaries as possible so people can tell their specific version of what it means to be American.

Awkwafina and Tzi Ma. A24

DEADLINE: Since The Farewell is basically your story, was it like a form of therapy for you?

In so many ways it’s sort of this communal grieving of the potential loss, of the future loss, but also of the things that we all have lost and will lose. Yeah, it’s really been therapeutic because I also, through the process, realize that it’s not my responsibility to find answers. As an artist and as a storyteller, it’s also not my place to know the answers and if I’m going into a film in a story already knowing the answers, knowing exactly what I want to say, then it’s probably not the right project. But if it’s something that I am entering into because I’m going on a journey, then the audience goes on that journey and exploration with me and coming out of it not having the answers, but allowing people to raise more questions. And then also just realizing, “You know what, the answers don’t matter, the questions don’t matter. What really matters is I should call my grandma.” Some people come out of the movie that way and they think, “Oh god, I haven’t talked to my grandma. I love her. I’m going to call her right away.” Hearing that is really beautiful.

DEADLINE: The Farewell has received quite a positive reception since its premiere at Sundance. Do you feel the pressure as an Asian American woman that you need to continue to represent and telling these stories?

WANG: Yeah, I think that I definitely see the value and the importance of it because so many young women, even aside from the film, they just haven’t seen a director that looks like me.

Wang on the set of “The Farewell”. Casi Moss/A24

DEADLINE: There’s you and Chloe Zhao, Jennifer Phang — there’s a handful.

WANG: There’s a handful, right? But I think that because there’s still so few of us it is really meaningful for young women, especially, to see us out there. I feel a sense of responsibility for them, to represent them on screen and off screen, behind the camera. But you know, I also have to look at every project and just figure out what the story is and my entry point for it. Like I was saying earlier, I don’t make a film because it’s Asian American. I don’t have to work towards being an Asian American. It reminds me of what Hannah Gadsby said in Nanette — where she said she was getting criticism that there was not enough lesbian content and she was like, “I don’t understand, I was on stage the entire time.” You know? That’s kind of how I feel. As long as I’m making something from my voice, from my perspective there will be Asian American content because I am the storyteller. I want us to have all of those opportunities that a white man does in Hollywood. I think it’s really important that we’re allowed to tell all kinds of stories as well, but that we bring our perspective to those stories.

DEADLINE: Speaking to that, Hollywood has been talking about diversity and inclusion a lot, but it seems to be looking

WANG: I mean maybe we’ll reach sort of like a post-modern, post-diversity era where it becomes so organic to just represent the world we actually live in that we don’t have to even have these conversations — that there are so many female Asian directors that I don’t have to get the question of “How does it feel to be the first?” or “What is that like for you? Because at the end of the day I’m also just a filmmaker who made a film about my family. My family happens to be Asian American. It happens to be very underrepresented.

People say it’s an Asian American film. What is the craft of an Asian American film? Does an indie film have to look a particular way? Does a studio film have to look a particular way? Because studio and indie are really just about where the money comes from, right? I think that I would love to just live in a post-diversity world because I do think there’s a lot of dangers as well too, which we already talked about, of putting people into boxes with diversity.

DEADLINE: Have you seen different responses based on where you screen the film? Or has it just been a sea of tears?

WANG: There’s definitely a lot of tears. Like the other day we were trying to figure out where the screening was happening and if it was out yet and we saw some women coming out sobbing and we were like, “Oh, I think the screening’s over there.” So I definitely think it’s been a pretty visceral experience for a lot of people. We’re releasing it soon in China and we had a screening at Shanghai Film Festival. Some of the actors were there, Tzi, for example, and he said that it was interesting because the Chinese audience really responded to it as well, but they laughed in different spots. But yeah, I think for the most part it’s a pretty emotional experience.

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2019/07/the-farewell-lulu-wang-interview-awkwafina-tzi-ma-diana-lin-a24-1202645126/