Lulu Wang draws on family history in ‘The Farewell’
Lulu Wang thinks that her bowl of overnight oats “seems kind of healthy,” but she’s unsure.
“It’s got seeds and nuts and fruit,” she says over a recent breakfast at Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel. “But it also has brown sugar.”
She frowns, skeptical, before laughing.
Since the critically acclaimed debut of her new movie, “The Farewell,” at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival last winter, Wang has been promoting the film. It opens here July 19 and is her most personal project yet. The second feature film (after “Posthumous,” 2014) that Wang has written and directed, “The Farewell” is “based on an actual lie” — her family’s.
The film stars Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Ocean’s 8”) as Billi, a Chinese-American woman living in New York City. Her immigrant parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) live nearby, but her grandmother, Nai Nai, and her great aunt, Little Nai Nai — are back in China.
It’s in China that the family gets devastating news from doctors: Nai Nai has only months to live. Led by Nai Nai’s sister, the family decides not to tell Nai Nai. Instead, they put together a hasty wedding between Nai Nai’s grandson and his girlfriend as a way of bringing the whole family together to say their goodbyes. Billi, raised in a country where it’s frowned upon for doctors to allow a family to withhold medical information from an adult patient, grapples with the family’s decision as the wedding nears.
“I really fought to make this film as specific as possible, not just to the culture, but really specific to my family,” Wang says. “So I didn’t even know that other families did this, that this was really a cultural thing, until I started exploring the subject matter.”
It’s been particularly meaningful for Wang when others, “even if they’re not Chinese-American,” recognize their story in hers.
“It’s been so wonderful because it also shows that stories can be universal, becaus e [of] or through their specificity, as opposed to in spite of,” she says. “And I think so often in Hollywood the tendency is to make things as broad as possible so that people resonate. I just don’t think that’s true. I think that if we tell really specific stories, they’re able to resonate with people regardless of what gender or culture they’re from.”
Wang, 36, was born in Beijing and grew up in Miami, where she studied classical piano. She graduated from Boston College, and enjoys being back in the city.
“I didn’t go to film school when I was out here, but I studied film and I think that it really makes me think back on my journey of having the confidence to pursue film even though I didn’t go to film school,” she says. “It was mostly men in my class back then. And so not knowing where I would fit in in the industry. . . . it’s been just really good to reflect on all of that.”
Wang’s story, originally appearing in an episode of public radio’s “This American Life” called “In Defense of Ignorance,” caught the attention of producers who were willing to back the film as the authentic story that Wang always wanted to make. (Wang famously turned down a streaming service offer in favor of A24, an independent film and television company.)
The most natural progression from personal history to feature film was keeping some things the same — particularly Nai Nai’s sister, Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong). Producers, and Wang, opted to have Hong play herself.
“She’s really cute and irreplaceable,” Wang says, adding, “She brought a level of authenticity to the movie, where everybody else is a professional actor. I think she sort of grounded everyone. They all kind of came to her and said, ‘Am I doing a good job of representing your family?’ ”
Tzi Ma (the father in Disney’s upcoming live action remake of “Mulan”), who plays Billi’s dad in the film, looked to Hong and the rest of Wang’s family for guidance in crafting his character.
“I actually had a lot of time with [Little Nai Nai’s] husband, because we were hanging out with [Wang’s] dad, and he also tagged along, so I really got a lot of insight from him,” Ma says over the phone. “And that character is not really in the film, but it gave me insight on everybody else, so that was really a welcoming surprise. And I think really there were a lot more subjects that I was able to discover, and I thought that was really helpful.”
While the ability to learn firsthand from the family was unique, Ma also enjoyed the experience of being directed by Wang.
“She’s a hoot,” he says with a laugh, adding, “She was very confident, very self-assured, and obviously well prepared. She works really well with people.”
For Ma, the experience of working on “The Farewell” — with Wang and with her family — was like no other.
“I was researching and, as I was really preparing for this movie, I was trying more to find directors that resonated with me on the comedy level,” Wang says. “Because it was such a specific tone of comedy that I wanted to hit, without losing the pathos and the drama.”
While ultimately a drama, “The Farewell” thrives on a dark sense of humor. The comedy serves as a cushion for what is fundamentally a story about death and the suddenness of mortality, and vice versa. Humorous moments often allow viewers to let their guard down, so that reminders of reality come as sucker punches.
“What drove me to tell the story was how often I would be laughing through the tears,” Wang says, finishing up her oats. “So that was something I wanted to capture. As I would be laughing about something, the next minute I would find myself in tears being reminded of the sadness of the situation. Or the other way around, where I would be really sad but then I would see something so ridiculous or recognize the ridiculousness of the situation around me, and then I would want to laugh. And it was always sort of this ‘Should I laugh or should I cry?’ I don’t even know.”
“I think that grief often brings out both humor and joy in a family,” Wang says. “In such close proximity to the grieving. . . . I think that’s pretty universal.”