“You guys moved to the west long ago. You think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole. Family. Society.”
On this eve to what I consider to be my favorite holiday of the year – Thanksgiving – I thought it was appropriate to draw attention to one of the best films of last year – Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (2020). Tenderly and with just the right amount of gravitas, Wang’s tale works as a commemoration of being surrounded by family – and how it might frustrate us yet strengthen us and ultimately help us feel unified (sometimes in spite of ourselves). And gosh, do we need to feel integrated. It is also an indelible observation of cultural and generational differences – as well as a study of what we keep hidden from our own flesh and blood, and what we choose to reveal; what the family unit expects from us and what we receive in return. As you prepare for the most unique Thanksgiving in your lifetime, I thought Wang’s wondrous gem would fortify you.
Billi with her father and mother left Changchun, China when she was five years old. Living in NYC, and trying to make a go as an artist, she nurtures a close relationship with her Nai Nai (paternal grandmother) who remained in the East. She finds out from her parents that Nai Nai has been given four months to live – and the truth will be kept from her. Instead, a big wedding will be organized to work as an excuse for the extended family to get together and surround the grandmother. When Billi questions the deception, her mother explains, “Chinese people have a saying: ‘When people get cancer they die.’ It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.”
Since Billi’s the expressive one, she’s discouraged from flying to China. They’re afraid she will not be able to go along with the lie and will tell the truth to Nai Nai. “Everyone prefers you don’t go,” her mother informs her as Billi cries. “Look at you, you can’t hide your emotions.” She defies them and joins the big farewell. It’s been 25 years since the extended family has gathered. Billi’s uncle has been living in Japan, and it’s his son, Hao Hao who has been convinced to marry his girlfriend of only six months. As the preparations begin for the big day, Billi clashes with the rest of the family about their dishonesty. “I mean, if it’s for good, it’s not really a lie,” a Chinese doctor explains.
Through Billi’s journey, Wang is able to show us the differences between East and West as well as the difficulties of returning to a culture that used to be yours and you’ve grown away from. Although extremely specific, we can all identify with this dynamic of returning home – especially when we’ve changed so much. This is a rich narrative that also explores about how we express love in different ways culturally and individually. Billi’s caught between traditional Chinese beliefs and modern rationalist Western views. “When my father died I was really sad, but I don’t act like you,” Billi’s mother expresses. “When I went back to China for the funeral, everybody was watching me. They were all expecting me to fall apart. And they think if I don’t cry, I don’t love my father. “
Director Wang mines this material with empathy, balancing an earnest sweetness with black humor. Billi – played by a terrific Akwafina – is that rare leading character who wants to take control, but her journey is about learning to be inactive and to come to terms with the fact that it’s for the best. The lighting emphasizes the fluorescent lighting in China – an effect that is both quirky and cold – contrasting with the warm and intimate human interactions. She shoots in longer frames, giving you a sense of isolation and separation between the characters. There’s a theatricality to the staging and the way the performers are arranged – reminding you that in family settings there’s a certain degree of performance taking place. She uses a wide aspect ratio – which is normally used for landscapes and action films. When the whole family is together, this allows you to see all the family members in one frame, but when Billi is alone in her hotel room you really feel the absence of her loved ones. The soundtrack is a score using voices – like a Greek chorus – reminding Billi of the importance of community.
Billi: “In America we don’t have a lot of family. I’ve missed all of you. I’m very happy to be back. I’m very happy to celebrate with you all.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and Kanopy and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Written and Directed by Lulu Wang
Starring Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Zhao Shu-zhen, X Mayo, Diana Lin, Yang Xuejian and Becca Khalil.
Writer and Director Lulu Wang on Bringing “The Farewell” to the Screen
In 2013, the director Lulu Wang was told that her grandmother had Stage 4 lung cancer and had three months to live. The family had decided not to tell the matriarch of the diagnosis, believing that no good could come of it, and devised an elaborate ruse — a wedding banquet, in her hometown Changchun — as an excuse for everyone to go to China to see her one last time.
Wang thought the situation, with its mix of pathos and absurdity, would make a fine film, but she couldn’t find any takers. With its all-Asian cast, she was told, it was too Chinese for the American market. “And when I pitched it to Chinese producers, they were like, ‘Why is this dramatic? Everybody in China does this.’”…“Nobody wanted to make this film,” she said. After several producers passed on it, Wang told her story in a 2016 episode of “This American Life.” The podcast included 2013 interviews with family members, many of whom felt that, given Nai Nai’s advanced age (she was 80 at the time), the shock of the news might be worse for her than the cancer. There were also more recent interviews conducted after her grandmother was in the clear. “Nai Nai had already outlived her three-month prognosis, so my dad was like, ‘See, we did the right thing!’” Wang said. “The whole family was happy to talk about it.” Nor were they all that concerned about news of “This American Life” getting back to Nai Nai. “They thought it was this niche thing,” she said. “It’s a very American show.”
After the episode ran, however, Wang couldn’t get the idea of a film out of her head. A documentary wasn’t an option, she said, because “I’d have to explain to my grandmother why we’re in her house shooting.” But when Wang and her crew finally began shooting the feature in 2018, they ended up, yes, in Nai Nai’s house and hometown. Wang wanted to film in the area, she said, because so many of the traditions were so specific to that region. And if she were in the area anyway, why not just film in Changchun? “My grandma was like, why would you come back to China to shoot a movie and not shoot it at home, where I can see you?” she said. The shoot provided an opportunity for Lum and the rest of the cast to meet the real Nai Nai. “I think she was really proud of Lulu,” Lum said. “She would love to come to set and hang out and joke around. She had one of those motorized scooters, and Lulu had this hoverboard, and between takes they would race.” The film was also a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Nai Nai to see what her granddaughter does for a living. A classically trained pianist, Wang had worked on music videos and web shorts before directing her first feature, “Posthumous,” a 2015 rom-com. “To her, it’s like, ‘is this a hobby?’” Wang said. “But when I brought home producers, to her it was like, ‘you’re the boss of all these white people?’ I think it was just such a transformational moment of pride for her.” Even so, the cast and crew kept the plot of the film under wraps when Nai Nai was around. So what did she think the movie was about? “She thought that the movie was loosely based on our family, with everybody coming back to China for a wedding,” Wang said. “There are cultural differences, and hilarity ensues.” (nytimes.com)
Awkwafina on “The Farewell”
Awkwafina on “The Farewell”
The actress was raised by her own grandmother, and even reading the script, which hinges on the bond between Billi and her own nai nai often moved Awkwafina to tears. She was initially nervous about two aspects of the film: playing a character who speaks Chinese (“I wasn’t sure if the character was supposed to be good at it, because I’m not”) and dramatic acting that would require her to cry on command. “I’m fairly new to this game, so there were a lot of things that I see now as shallow insecurities,” she said. “When you’re there and you’re dealing with the subject at hand and what’s going on, it really comes down to a combination of empathy and working with personal experiences. But I was definitely unsure of myself. People know me in a very specific way, and imagine if this was like, yikes. It would be horrible.” While the film is loosely based on Wang’s own experiences, Awkwafina said that the filmmaker was “never possessive about this role.” Despite the similarities with her own family life, Billi isn’t exactly Awkwafina either. That’s a good thing for a rising star looking to expand her range. “A lot of roles that I play, it’s like my grandma says, it’s not acting, it’s just you,” she said with a laugh.
But that’s not always the case, at least not by every metric. In her relatively short on-screen career, Awkwafina has been cast in an array of films, including those that benefit from colorblind casting (think “Ocean’s 8” or teen comedy “Dude,” films where her character’s ethnicity is not at all important to the story) and features that require actors of a certain background (like “Crazy Rich Asians” or “The Farewell”). In a changing Hollywood that is more conscious of ever of the needs for diversity and inclusion, Awkwafina has locked projects that embraced both sides of the coin. “There will always be roles where you need to be [a certain ethnicity], like it’s relevant to being Asian, it’s relevant to the culture,” she said. “There are also roles that, when you’re reading a script, ‘wow, I really can’t be that role because it says that she’s not Asian.’ Now we’re getting into a time where you can read a role that may not even have a gender. I don’t think that that’s a tool of trickery, I think it’s a tool of like, let’s see everyone.” (indiewire.com)
Writer/Director Lulu Wang on Casting “The Farewell”
Although autobiographical, Wang never saw ‘The Farewell’ as a straight-up biopic, which gave her some wiggle room when casting her cinematic alter ego (renamed Billi in the film). But even if Wang didn’t want a doppelganger, there were restrictive parameters during the search for a lead actress. “We needed her to be seen as American but have the ability to speak some Chinese,” Wang explains. Fortunately, there was one up-and-coming former YouTube star who fit the bill. Nora Lum — also known as Awkwafina — had just finished filming Ocean’s 8, was about to start shooting ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and was plotting the next steps of her film career when her manager sent her the script for The Farewell. She met Wang for coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and pitched herself for the role by talking about her own life being raised by a Chinese grandmother and her feelings of being caught between her Asian heritage and American upbringing. “It was incredible to just be in the presence of someone who was about to write and direct her own story,” says the star. With her lead set, Wang relocated to China, where she would have slightly less than two months to solidify crew, equipment and locations — and cast the rest of her movie. A local casting director was used to find Chinese talent to play Wang’s onscreen family, and that wasn’t always easy. Says producer Daniele Tate Melia, “To convince Chinese actors in China that they should be in an American indie film and say, ‘It might go to Sundance and break out!’ — that is not a big draw there.”
Veteran performer Zhao Shuzhen received a call from Wang about playing her grandmother. “She told me it was an independent film, so the treatment and compensation would not be that high,” says Zhao via translator. (The movie’s production budget came in at slightly less than $5?million.) “But I was moved by her passion and dedication to her story.” In another meta moment, Zhao — a star of the Chinese film and television world for six decades — actually met with Wang’s real grandmother, though there’s some dispute about whose idea that was. “Because Lulu thought it was important for me to faithfully portray her grandmother, she made a point to arrange a meeting for me to meet her,” says Zhao. Wang remembers it differently. “She says I set up the meeting but she really set up the meeting. Zhao said she wanted to meet my grandmother,” she says. “My great aunt was going, ‘Great! Let’s meet her!’ And I was going, ‘Are you sure?'” Along with Nai Nai’s sister Hong Lu — who plays herself in the movie — Zhao went to Nai Nai’s home to meet her. “She knew [Zhao] was going to play some version of her,” explains Wang. “She just didn’t know she was the central character.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Wang on the Making of “The Farewell”
Having cut her teeth on music videos and indie films, Wang was accustomed to the hardscrabble work ethic that goes along with limited budgets and long workdays. Still, she was unsure of what to expect from indie production in China. “There are no unions, so there is not a lot of ‘That’s not my department,’ or ‘That is not my job,'” she says. The Chinese crew, which had to be convinced to shoot five-day weeks as opposed to their usual seven, would call Wang “director” as opposed to her name and were jarringly efficient. If a tree was ruining the framing of the shot, they would just chop it down. If a sedan was blocking the path needed for the dolly, crewmembers would pick it up and move it. “The speed at which things happen is something I had to adjust to,” says Wang. The international crew was predominantly Mandarin-speaking, while behind-the-camera talent included a Korean production designer, American producers and a Spanish cinematographer. Despite the language barrier, after filming or on nights off the Farewell team would go out for karaoke or watch whatever movies were on TV. “They were always playing ‘True Lies,’ for some reason. It was a ‘True Lies’ blitz!” recalls Awkwafina. “A lot of Jamie Lee Curtis.” The entire crew is in agreement that the climactic wedding banquet scene was the trickiest to pull off. Production designer Yong Ok Lee had to build out a false ceiling of draped fabrics to hide lighting equipment, but the heat emitted from the low-hanging bulbs baked the banquet meal, which consisted of hundreds of pounds of seafood. “You never think about how hot those lights are and how smelly crab can get,” laughs producer Melia. The production shot their extras eating the large quantities of crab, while the empty shells continued to be used as props for the weeklong shoot.
The banquet shoot also had a real-life twist ending of its own. “It was our final day of filming and, suddenly, 300 kindergarteners showed up on set,” remembers producer Anita Gou. The space was being turned around that afternoon for a Kindergarten graduation. “There were all of these children in glittery costumes doing synchronized dances, and parents with their phones out.” Another welcome but unexpected result of filming in China: hoverboards. When picking up camera equipment, Wang saw that the rental house also rented Segway hoverboards — the internet’s favorite hands-free mode of transport, which came to prominence in the late aughts. “They would use it as a low-fi dolly,” explains Wang, whose zeal for the hoverboard prompted the rental house to include the scooter with her camera and lighting hardware. Wang directed a large portion of her film from atop it, traversing between video village and set to talk to the actors. “It’s definitely not safe and definitely would not be allowed in America,” laughs Wang. “But it was really cool.” Wang’s newfound love of Hoverboards carried over into post-production, where she used one to commute to the editing bay in New York City. For co-editor Matt Friedman, who worked with Wang on ‘Posthumous,’ The Farewell’s majority-Mandarin dialogue created a unique challenge. “In Mandarin, the sentence structure is completely different from English,” he explains, “so the emotional content of the line in Mandarin might fall at the end of the dialogue, while in the English translation, it may be in the beginning of the same line.” Wang would sit with her editors to ensure that the film’s meaning and moments, both spoken and unspoken, were not, literally, lost in translation. (hollywoodreporter.com)
About Writer and Director Lulu Wang
Born in Beijing, Wang moved with her parents to Miami at age six, where her father was pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Miami. Wang started studying piano at age four and continued lessons after moving to the U.S., often practicing the instrument at a local church whose administrators gave her parents a key to the facility. Wang was on-track to be a concert pianist when she discovered her love of storytelling as a literature and music double major at Boston College. She credits Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary” — which she watched on a computer screen at her school’s video library — for inspiring her to pivot into filmmaking. After producing a few short student films and documentaries, Wang moved to Hollywood in 2007 to pursue her love of writing. In her career, she has amassed a list of accolades, including being a finalist in the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival for her narrative film “TOUCH,” a recipient of the Roger and Chaz Ebert Directing Fellowship; and earning a 2014 spot in the Film Independent Direct Project Involve fellowship. (nbcnews.com) Her film, The Farewell, won the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language as well as for a BAFTA.