The Farewell, from writer/director Lulu Wang, “based on an actual lie” as its opening titles proclaim, is the story of Chinese-born, US-raised Billi (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians).
An emerging writer who reluctantly returns to her homeland to find that, although the whole family knows their adored matron, Nai-Nai (grandma), has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself.
To say one last goodbye, they gather under the pretence of a rushed wedding, bringing family together from all over the globe.
In her sophomore feature, Wang weaves a vividly autobiographical account of family – inspired by her own personal experience, and filming in her grandmother’s neighbourhood of Changchun, China. The film raises questions on the challenges of cultural tradition – asking audiences if it’s ever OK to lie to loved ones.
After years of rejection and almost giving the story up, the resulting success of that lie has seen the indie filmmmaker’s stocks rise dramatically.
We caught up with Wang to find out how representing her family on screen made for her most personal work.
What was it like for you, going from Posthumous to this personal film?
A lot of people talk about the sophomore slump, and I think that’s what I was really worried about. My first film wasn’t distributed very widely, so I knew that I wanted to tell a more personal story in my second film.
When this [the story in the film] happened to me, I immediately thought that it would make for a good story. But nobody wanted to make it. In some ways, it was almost harder to make, because it was going to be an all Chinese or Chinese-American cast, and I wanted to keep it in authentic language; having it subtitled, and having the characters be Chinese.
I was having a bit of an existential crisis, because I felt like everyone in the industry tells me to find my voice and make something personal, but then when I do, they told me that it doesn’t fit into what people are financing, and that there’s no market for it.
So, I almost quit the film industry because of that, until I told my story on (podcast) This American Life. After doing that, producers started approaching me and wanting to make it into a film.
How did you manage to be true to your viewpoint throughout the film?
I think that was the greatest challenge, figuring out what details I had to really stay true to and where I could be a little bit looser, and fictionalise things a bit more. Ultimately, I came to realise that in order to represent an emotional truth, in order to properly explore the themes that I wanted to explore, the casting had to be authentic to people, the language had to be really authentic.
How was the experience filming in your homeland of China?
We shot 24 days, it was really, really intense. It was wonderful. But, of course, looking back, I felt like there was a lot of stuff that was wonderful about it. But it was just really intense. We didn’t sleep much. You’re dealing with a different culture, different foods, different way of shooting. Crews are different, communication is difficult. I was directing in both Chinese and English, which meant that things would often take twice as long because I would have to say, once in English, and then repeat myself and Chinese and get confused, who was speaking what language and it was really, really hot and the AC was broken.
We were also shooting six-day weeks. And we were up against the timeline of everybody’s visas, because the max that we could get was 60 days for a lot of the visas. A lot of people literally had to leave the country. Some within 12 hours after the day that we finished shooting. If we lost a day, it wasn’t just about money, but we couldn’t put extra days on at the end because our visas would run out; not mine, but some of my crew. Every time we lost any time, we just had to reassess the shots and the scenes, we couldn’t just add more time at the end. There were just a lot of challenges.
The film averts stereotypes, tropes and clichés. How important was that to you?
I don’t think that I could have made a different version of the movie, because it just wouldn’t have felt right to me, especially because I’m representing my own family. Whenever I felt there was a push towards something more dramatic, if it didn’t actually happen to me, and it wasn’t true to my real life, it would immediately raise red flags. ‘Well, why are we including it?’ I think that it was easy for me to filter out those things.
Did you have any inspirations or references cinematically?
Yes, Mike Leigh was a really big inspiration for this film. And Ruben Östlund was a really big inspiration. Scandinavian filmmakers in general, but Ruben Östlund, especially because he refers to Force Majeure as a family thriller. And I really saw The Farewell as a family thriller, that it was very much about making the interior, external, and representing that on the big screen and making it also feel epic; that the feelings these characters were having, especially Billi, are quite dramatic. But you know, what was happening on the outside was actually not dramatic. And I really, really thought it’s best to tow that line of making the drama interior rather than exterior.
You’re doing a sci-fi film next?
I like to play with expectations. I think when we hear sci-fi, we immediately think it’s going to look a certain way. I call it a mundane sci-fi, because I find that so often in sci-fi, we tend to lean into the sci-fi elements, like the big visuals and all of that. But really, for me, it’s actually that people are still going to be people in the future. And their lives are still going to be just as mundane as they are now. And, or absurd, or sad. And so, it’s really about finding those moments within this futuristic world.
Can you tell us more about the film?
It’s called Children, it’s based on a short story of the same name by Alexander Weinstein. It deals with a couple who can’t have children because of fertility issues, and they have digital children in a virtual reality world. It asks questions about why we have children, is it to give life or is it to somehow project an experience or some need of our own onto the children.
The Farewell opens in cinemas on September 5, 2019