Brow Beat

Lulu Wang’s Grandmother Learned That She Has Cancer From The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s Film About Not Telling Her Grandmother That She Has Cancer

Lulu Wang sitting in a director's chair answering questions on stage at the Egyptian Theatre.
Awkward!
Hollywood Foreign Press Association

This post contains SPOILERS for The Farewell. If you are Lulu Wang’s grandmother, it also contains spoilers about your own medical history.

There are many ways to keep a secret: You can refrain from telling other people about it, or simply not tell anyone, or even just keep your mouth shut! However, “talk about the secret in detail on This American Life, then write and direct a feature film about it starring Awkwafina” turns out to be a surprisingly ineffective method of maintaining secrecy, if Lulu Wang’s experience is anything to go by.

The Farewell, Wang’s autobiographical film about a reunion her family held in China to say goodbye to her terminally ill grandmother without revealing her diagnosis, is in the running for two Golden Globes Sunday night. The film ends with the revelation that Wang’s real-life grandmother, who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2013, is still alive and still unaware of her diagnosis. But as Wang revealed at the Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, held at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre on Sunday, releasing a successful and critically acclaimed movie about her grandmother’s illness made it difficult to keep it a secret from her. And now, inevitably, the other shoe has dropped. Wang’s grandmother read a review of The Farewell that talked about the film’s autobiographical content, and has figured what is going on:

Wang says she hasn’t spoken to her grandmother about the film since she discovered what it was about, so here’s hoping it cleans up this awards season—that should make the upcoming conversation a lot easier, assuming her grandmother closely follows American movie awards. Here’s the full Foreign Language symposium, which was moderated by Italian journalist Silvia Bizio, featuring Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, Portrait of a Lady on Fire director Céline Sciamma, Les Misérables director Ladj Ly, and Pain and Glory director Pedro Almodóvar.

Here are Lulu Wang’s comments about keeping her grandmother’s diagnosis a secret:

Silvia Bizio: Lulu, your film is also very autobiographical—you talk about your grandmother. Tell us about, you know, how difficult it was even to keep the truth about the film that you were making from your grandmother. So tell us about what led you to this film.

Lulu Wang: Yes. First of all, thank you so much for having me here—this is quite a huge honor. Thank you for being here. So I started making this film because I couldn’t not. I was having dreams after this happened to me. I was in China for about a week, and when I came back, every night I would just have memories of the set pieces, the scenes, the individual scenes in the film. And I was really driven by how conflicted I was between, you know, the value system and what I felt was very wrong—lying to my grandma—but also the love that I also felt. So I was driven to make the film by the juxtaposition of love and joy with grief and being angry with my family, but on some level understanding it at the same time, and just having a lot of questions and not having any answers for them. And the people in my life I would talk to, if I talked to my American friends, would have the American answer, and then my family would have the Chinese answer. And so you just felt very torn. And so that’s why I made the film.

And I guess I didn’t think about how meta it was going to be to actually make the film, because—well, first of all, I dreamed of making the film, but in a way, never quite knew for sure if I would ever get to do it. And once we started making the film, I told my family, and they said, “Well, you’ve made films before, and they’ve gone nowhere. So let’s not worry about it, you know? Are they paying you to write the script? Great! Get paid, pay your rent, that’s good enough.” And then we got into Sundance, and they’re like, “Well, it’s a big festival, but it’s an American festival, so it’s never going to leave the country, and your grandma doesn’t go on the internet, she doesn’t read English, so it’s fine.” You know, and so every step of the way, it got bigger and bigger, until we were on the cover of the New York Times, which gets translated into Chinese.

And as you said, even when we were shooting, my grandmother came to set. Because I had initially wanted to not shoot in her hometown in order to continue to keep the secret from her. But when we went scouting, and we went, you know, I took my producers to have dinner at her house, she said, “Why would you shoot in another city? You know, if you’re going to shoot a family story”—she didn’t know it was about her, but she knew it was about our family—“you of course have to honor our hometown. And also, you’re going to be here for several months—I want to see you. That makes the most sense, why would you go elsewhere?” And I didn’t have a good answer.

So we ended up shooting in her neighborhood, and she came to set all the time, and I had to tell everyone, “Please don’t tell my grandmother.” And at the time, the movie was called Nai Nai, because, like, the name of the company was just “Grandma.” And so on all the production vehicles, at the start of production, they make production gifts, and so on the cars it said “Nai Nai,” they were handing out t-shirts that said “Nai Nai,” the first day of set, we were shooting a block from her house, like, she would come downstairs in her wheelchair and come to set. So I had to confiscate all the shirts and try to get all the cars to take off the signs, because, yeah. And so, I mean, even now she is still around and the movie’s coming out in China, and the title–

SB: And she still doesn’t know?

LW: Oh, gosh. This is a complicated question. She actually just found out. And it’s very traumatic that it’s coming out in China. And the title of the movie is Don’t Tell Her in Chinese. And her friend saw a review of it and was so proud of her, one of her longest friends, and sent it to her. And the review said, “The film is based on Lulu Wong’s real life. Her grandmother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in 2013. Her family threw a fake wedding for her cousin from Japan and her grandmother didn’t know. Then she made a movie about it…” so it went through the entire history of our family, and my grandma read it. And so she said to little Nai Nai, her sister, who plays herself in the movie, she said, “I just thought that you were really daft, because you went and shot a movie, you went to the premiere in New York, and you come back and you can’t tell me anything about it. You can’t tell me what it’s about. You can’t tell me the title. But look, it says in the newspaper it’s called Don’t Tell Her, and that’s why you didn’t tell me, because I am the “her” of the “don’t tell her.”

But we haven’t talked about it, so I’ll see what happens when I see her.