Lulu Wang’s The Farewell launched last January at Sundance, and immediately established itself as one of the most moving and impactful films of the year. Our Victor Stiff referred to the film in his review as “one of the rare movies that lives up to the hype”, and this story of family, identity and the challenges of navigating different cultures is deftly told. With a fabulous central performance by Awkwafina, one that firmly establishes her talents on a global scale, Wang’s film is based on a fictionalized version of her own familial experiences. The end result is an absolute delight, one that speaks with great specificity about its particular storyline, but with universal truths that speak to all audiences.
ThatShelf spoke in this exclusive interview with Wang following the film’s Canadian premiere. Our chat discussed the casting of her star, the balance of working with competing cultural expectations on a story so personally connected to her own, and her views on the current political rhetoric regarding what it means to be “American”.
Note that our chat contains mild spoilers about the film.
You’ve been living with your film for a while, and it’s been on the festival circuit since January. How has your own connection with the film changed as audiences finally get a chance to see it?
I don’t know that my relationship with it has changed, it’s more that the film is bigger than me, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s a little bit of letting go to kind of, it belongs to the world. Once in a while I’ll read a review and it’ll talk about Billi, who’s a fictional character, but I chose to keep my parents’ real names, first names, Jian and Haiyan. So I’ll see my parents’ real names in these articles, talking about these characters, and that’s very surreal and strange, because it’s almost like people are talking about us and our lives. If they’re talking about Jian, are they talking about Jian the character or Jian my mother?
Many people make very personal films, but done poorly that becomes insular. Your film is not only very specific but also inviting. Can you talk about the challenge of pulling off that sort of trick and making sure that it was audience involving but still very highly specific?
I fought to make something very specific but also I just went into this assuming that the characters would stand in the position I’m standing in. I didn’t want to use the film to explain things to them, to catch them up first, and then throw them in. That’s how I experience my family half the time when I go back to China. I know them and I have a history, but there’s so many people I don’t know, or I don’t remember, because I left when I was so young. This is an immersive experience and I think that helps to include and engage the audience because in a way they’re playing catchup.
Your main weapon for doing that is the extraordinary performance of Awkwafina. Could you talk about eliciting that performance and when you knew that she had actually nailed, not simply what was on the page, but bringing something extraordinary to the film? Was there a moment when you realized that this was now her story, not just your story as written on the page?
I knew from the first day. Even when I saw her audition tape, I knew that she was perfect. She has this ability for her face to both be blank and full of expression at the same time, which is a very weird thing. I always told her from the very beginning, she’s not playing me. Billi is this vessel, a conduit for the audience to experience this family and go on this journey. Her character is so empathetic and so very funny. It was important for me to establish her as both very American but also very connected to her Chinese grandmother and show her as somebody who is light and funny and independent in the beginning of the film so that you really feel that shift when she gets that news and the powerlessness that she feels to both change the situation and control the lie. Regardless of the lie, her grandma’s going to die, and so I think pretty early on, when I saw her chemistry with Zhao on the first day, I knew that it was going to work.
Your cast is a mix of seasoned performers and non-traditional actors, including some that are actually your family members. Could you talk about bringing them into the story and ensuring that they were playing the character, not simply being themselves but of course bringing themselves to the screen, that balance?
Little Nai Nai is my real great-aunt, and she plays herself in the movie. In the beginning, she was trying to act in a way she considered to be acting. I said, no, I just wanted her to be herself. And once she figured out how to do that on screen, it was very easy. For the actors, I think that they found access to my real family to be a real resource. Tzi Ma spent some time with my dad, Diana Lin spent some time with my mom, they had coffee, so in a way, they really got to know these people, they really got to know their humour, their intelligence. They wanted to do justice to these people and so it was really beautiful to watch because they really I think all carry themselves with a certain level of dignity. Each of the characters feels very rooted and they brought themselves as well because I think they can relate to my parents in real life. Zhao who plays Nai Nai learned that my grandmother was in the army, and so she just thought what a tough woman at the age of 14 to join the army, of course she’s going to want to be in charge of everything.
In the U.S. you’re going through all kinds of people who are saying some very nasty things about identity, about what it means to actually be of your country and people who are saying that one should go back to where one comes from. Do you have a particular reaction to the President’s comments, not in a political sense, but perhaps how this film actually connects to means to be somebody with ties to two cultures?
When I first started pitching the film and people were asking if it was American or is it Chinese. I would say, well, I’m American, so the film has to be American. When I went to China and pitched it, they said if it’s a Chinese film, they can’t be told through Billi’s eyes, she’s far too Westernized. Perspective is something that I can’t change – I can change my hair, I can change what I wear, I can learn a language, you can change your mindset, but so much of who we are, how we’re raised, our values, are rooted in the perspectives in the culture that we’re raised in. It made me realize I’m very American and this has to be an American film because the Chinese audience isn’t going to get on board with Billi thinking that this lie is wrong.
After I made the film, I started thinking, can I declare this as an American film because it’s got all of these subtitles? It’s an all-Asian cast, and it might be put in a foreign film category and what does that mean to me? It’s not a foreign film to me. It’s a very American story, culturally. It’s quintessentially American because it actually asks these questions of what does it mean to be American. The minute you start taking it for granted, then you’re not being American. America is a country that is made up of immigrants, it’s not a country that is locked into nationality based on ethnicity.
The film is a hyphenate, it explores multi-dimensions of cultures and what it means to be in-between cultures and worlds and identities. Every American has to deal with the complexity of different cultures because we all [save for the indigenous] come from somewhere else. Dealing with different cultures isn’t just China versus America – it’s also iff your family’s from Texas and you moved to New York. Those are very different cultures, so how do you navigate that? How do you navigate your very conservative family when you are socially very liberal? These are questions that I think the country is grappling with, about how we treat each other with respect when we disagree.
Are you optimistic?
[laughs] I’m not very optimistic. Politically, no, I’m not very optimistic. But I think that art does its part. I think that when you see certain things politically going on, you see an almost opposition in the arts as a reaction. That’s why I’m really proud that the movie’s out at this current time, as a way of representing what an American family can look like and does look like.
Your film addresses the notion of a good, shared lie. How that changed your own reaction to truth-telling, about the whole general thing about what is right, sort of on a moral, foundational level, but also what is the best for the family, for the culture, for maintaining peace?
I don’t think I’ve necessarily changed my mind. I do think that if we’re talking politically, I think that there’s a lot of downsides to collectivism, I think there’s a lot of downsides to this idea of lying to an entire country of people for the greater good because who gets to decide the greater good?
Chinese culture advocates lying to the family member about their illness, while politically they’re trying to erase historical events like the Tiananmen Square protests.
In the same way we don’t tell somebody about cancer, we do not tell somebody about an uprising in Hong Kong.
Exactly. And we don’t educate them, and we keep them in the dark. There are a lot of ways you can draw that metaphor and I intentionally avoided a lot of those politics because when you’re dealing with your family, you can’t draw one on one, they’re different situations.
All politics is local.
That too. For all of those reasons this is why I was opposed to the lie. So, I don’t necessarily think that I’ve changed my fundamental belief about truth-telling, but I think for me, this journey, and making this movie, was more, made me realize that I can’t find all of the answers. It isn’t necessarily my job to get to an answer and to make a judgment about right or wrong in this particular situation when it comes to my family. My family is not Tiananmen Square.
I have to respect the decisions my family makes allowing dignity is also a value that I hold very highly. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a blessing that it’s not my responsibility to make this decision. I don’t know what’s best and, fortunately, I don’t have to make that burden has been lifted off of me because I’m just the granddaughter. My only responsibility is just to enjoy the time with my grandmother and love my family to the best of my ability.
Finally, what’s on That Shelf in your house? What are you nerdy about, what is that thing that you collect or have at home that you cherish?
Oh, I obsessively collect books, I collect books and magazines, I love art magazines, I also collect little souvenirs from moments in time. If I’m spending a very special New Years or something I might collect an item from that particular event to remember. Yeah, so I have a lot of little ticket stubs and little mementos like that.
And in some ways this film is a memento of this particular time of your life.