Even by the standards of autobiographical filmmaking, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell feels extraordinarily personal. Starring Awkwafina as Wang’s stand-in, Billi, the acclaimed new drama chronicles the writer-director’s experience of traveling to China to say goodbye to her cherished grandmother while hiding the fact of the elderly relative’s terminal cancer diagnosis from her. (As with so many other families in China, Wang’s relatives decided to withhold the unhappy medical news from the patient to spare her the psychological pain. As a pretense for getting everyone together in China, the family threw a quickie wedding for Wang’s cousin.) The main characters are all based on members of Wang’s extended family, with two members—her grandmother’s younger sister (Hong Lu) and Lu’s dog Ellen—playing themselves.
But The Farewell is all the more poignant because of Wang’s refusal to force her experiences into a Hollywood mold. Wang spoke with Slate about finding the core of her story with the help of This American Life (on which she first recounted the tale), the occasional tensions between Asians and Asian Americans (a major theme in The Farewell), and the pieces of China she felt most urgently about including in her film.
Inkoo Kang: One of the most striking things about The Farewell is your commitment to telling the story with as much fidelity as possible, as opposed to taking your life experience and crafting a more conventional, three-act structure around it. Why did you feel you had to be as close to the truth as possible?
Lulu Wang: I guess because I did This American Life. That gave me a lot of insight into how I wanted to tell the story in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have had the courage to do if I didn’t do that show. And I think that’s because, in Hollywood, we often ask questions about marketplace before we ask questions about story. We often talk about marketplace and story structure before we really dig deep from a place of curiosity and investigation.
What was so beautiful about doing This American Life was the first question was, “I can’t believe this happened. How did this person feel about it? How did that person feel about it? How did you feel about it?” I had to say, “Well, I know how I feel about it, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about how the rest of my family felt, so let’s ask them.” It was this really pure and beautiful approach that allowed me to have a greater understanding.
The process of making this movie was also tied to what this movie is about: It’s a journey of greater understanding and compassion. So I felt like manipulating the story for the sake of plot points and drama would take away from what the story is actually about. It isn’t about some big reveal but about the Western desire to have answers and to have catharsis, and how do you deal when you can’t get them. [At the time,] I wanted that catharsis—this moment where some big, dramatic thing happens. And what you realize is, actually, it’s not that dramatic at all. The drama is interior.
You’ve said in other interviews that a lot of people wanted to tinker with the script by, for example, having Billi be the bride or giving her a love interest. And you insisted on making the focus of the movie Billi’s relationship with her grandmother. Why do you think the film industry is so resistant to stories about nonromantic relationships?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure. When I was first pitching the film, I had some people say, “But what are the stakes?” I said, “The stakes are that she’s going to lose her grandmother,” and they would say, “Yeah, but she’s going to lose her grandmother anyway. The grandmother’s in her 80s,” and I didn’t know how to answer that. It was like, “So does that mean we have to give her a relationship to lose in order for there to be stakes?” So I don’t really know why Hollywood is resistant to it, but I do think that that is why people are responding to the film, because we get so few films that do represent this kind of relationship.
Were you surprised that the film got permission to open in China, since so few nondomestic films do?
I wasn’t surprised, necessarily, but it was a struggle for us because we were fighting to get co-production status. And once we got the co-production status, I felt a lot more confident that we would be able to get Chinese distribution, because we wouldn’t have to be one of the films in that very small quota of films that get allowed into China.
But deep down, I knew that people would connect with it because I have friends who live in China that resonate with the story, not because they are also immigrants that moved to America, but because they moved from their smaller hometowns to a bigger city, like Beijing or Shanghai. Anyone can connect with the guilt and regret when you leave home and you’re not spending as much time with the people that you love, and you have to go back and say goodbye to them.
Do you feel like there’s an interest in Asian-American stories or Chinese-American stories in China?
No, I don’t think so. In fact, a lot of them are resistant. There’s this sort of feeling that the people who left, they don’t really understand China, you know?
Kind of like what’s represented in the movie, of my aunt comparing China with America, or people saying, “Oh, are you American now?” as if you’ve somehow abandoned your home country and your identity. I don’t blame them for thinking that way. I think there’s a truth to them thinking that we don’t really understand China the way that they do. So many immigrants, especially when they’ve left for a long time, hold onto an older, romanticized version of the place they left, as opposed to living in the reality of it.
There’s a reason why the cultures of so many Chinatowns around the world in some ways are more Chinese. They’ve held onto older Chinese rituals, traditions, and symbols in ways that, if you go back to China today, they’re not holding on to. They’re getting married in white dresses and in churches. There is less of a need to hold on to nostalgia. There’s no guilt. They’re trying to discover “What is China today? How do we progress?” Whereas the people who have left want to hold on.
One of the ways your film is really underrated is as a travel movie. But instead of it being about a character who visits a place for the first time, it’s about someone who travels to a country that they used to know that’s changed in their absence. Which images and cultural elements were most meaningful for you to include?
It was important for me to include my grandmother’s neighborhood, especially those peach buildings, because they have such a specific personality to them, and it just makes me think of that particular city. I don’t know who decided on that particular color, but it’s all over the city. And it speaks to the collectivism, the communism, of China, because it’s very uniform.
I also really wanted to include the uniformity of the greeters in front of the wedding. That was something that I had seen quite a bit, this militaristic training of the restaurant staff, hotel staff. The enthusiasm is so intense.
We shot at the actual grave of my grandfather. I really wanted to show that. Again, the uniformity of those gravestones really spoke to me. And the wedding photo studio. I wanted to show that, despite all of this progress, there’s a real love for romanticism, for fantasy. A love of pastels, like my grandmother’s poster with the baby. There’s a real earnestness about the people and the culture, [a love for] things that are cute and sweet and innocent. I wanted to show all sides of modern China.
The rainbow [sculpture] was a big part too, and what I wanted to show, again, is the contrast between romanticism and progress. There’s this beautiful rainbow, but there’s constantly construction in front of it. That was so symbolic to me, because it’s in the center of the city. Everyone drives around it every day. You see it coming from the airport. It’s meant to symbolize something beautiful and magical. And yet with all the construction around it, it’s not quite there. So, it’s like the China dream is in progress.
Can you talk about the birds?
The birds appearing in New York and then reappearing in China for me was … I wanted to put something that could potentially stand for something magical as a sign, but I wanted to do it in a very realistic way. I think signs are only signs if you believe that they’re signs.
You can make it what you want to make of it, and that very much relates to this lie with Nai Nai, because people are going to believe what they want to believe, whether it was my uncle with his probiotics, or family friends with prayer, or the [protective power of the] lie itself. If you are a spiritual person and you look for things, you may see signs. But if you don’t believe in that, then you’ll just go, “Oh, it’s just a bird.” So that was my way of reemphasizing this idea of perspective, that things are based on how you see them.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.