Think of every lie you’ve told your family. Yes, I’ll be home by midnight. I’ve been sleeping well. No, I’m not still seeing him. Most of the time, these fibs are attempts to preserve something: balance, your relationships, everyone’s sanity. But what if the lie is a matter of something bigger? In Lulu Wang’s new film The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina) finds out that her beloved Nai Nai, or grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), has a terminal condition; she doesn’t have long to live.
Billi also finds out that her grandmother doesn’t know about it—and that her family has decided to keep it a secret so that she can enjoy her life without worrying about it. Oh, also, everyone is gathering in China—with a hasty wedding as a convenient excuse—so they can see her one last time. Billi is conflicted. How could she possibly go along with such a story? At the very least, she decides she’ll go to China and see her Nai Nai, maybe for the last time.
This tale comes from real life: it really did happen to director Lulu Wang. Ahead of The Farewell‘s release, ELLE.com spoke to director Wang about whether lies can be kind, casting her real relatives in the film, and the complicated role of food in family.
How hard is it to keep up a lie like that?
It was really challenging, because every single moment I felt like, “Am I doing the right thing?” It felt like there was no right answer because if I did what I felt to be right, then I would go against my family, and if I followed what my family was doing, I felt like it was going against my instincts of what was right.
In an American film it would ultimately break. There would be a moment where the truth comes out and there would be catharsis and it would be like, “Everything is okay”—there would be some trauma, but everyone would get over it, and it would be like, “We’re all better now because it came out.”
That’s not what happened in my life. Nothing ever came out, the truth never was spoken, I didn’t get catharsis. Instead, even the goodbye was a lie—to say “I’ll see you soon.” But there was kindness in that, right? By the end of the trip, I felt the kindness of the lie, because I said to my grandmother, “I’ll see you soon, don’t worry.” I could tell that her heart was breaking and it was my way to comfort her.
You were born in Beijing—what was it like to go back to China to make this film?
It was really great because I feel like my whole life I’ve been navigating two worlds: my family, Chinese-American, and my family in China. Then there was this other side—me and childhood, and nostalgia and memories and food and culture, and another that was like, my future, which meant my partner was most likely somebody I was going to meet here in this country. My career was going to be rooted in America, American culture, particularly if I wanted to do anything in the arts.
Going back to China with an American crew, producers, was this really beautiful synergy of those two worlds. [The crew], they got to see this other side of me, and my family in China got to see what I do and see me on set. They see me as a child, so they were just like, “Why is this little girl directing a movie on set?” I think it was magical for them to kind of see me in a different context. Similarly, my producers were like, would say, “You’re a different person in China, you completely adapt into a different being.”
You also cast your real great-aunt, Lu Hong, in the movie as Billi’s aunt. What was it like working with her?
So wonderful. I’ve always loved her because she’s funny but so much of her humor comes from the desire to make things easier for people, to not burden anyone that she loves, and so she’ll always just carry her pain on her own. Publicly she’ll smile and make everyone else laugh as well. She’s just a very joyful person.
When I first told her I wanted her to be in the movie she was like, “But I’m not an actress, and I have a fat face and I’m going to ruin your movie.” I had to convince her that she wouldn’t. I cast her for a reason—I just wanted her to be real, and she didn’t have to “act,” whatever she felt like that meant. So once she got accustomed to that, she was like, “Oh, you just want me to be myself and do nothing else!”
It was a really emotional experience for her. When we did a second audition, I just asked her to talk about her life, her experience, coming up with this lie—being burdened with, as the only person who was there to decide, this decision. When she started putting herself back into that place, she got so emotional that my producers felt like it was unethical for us to ask her to be in the movie because she would have to revisit all of this trauma. Then I had to really talk to her to say, “Do you want to do this? Because I don’t want to put you through this if you don’t want to go through it.” And she felt it would be therapeutic for her to talk about it.
This is a very personal story. How did you feel when you first made it for the public, for This American Life?
Before I did This American Life, every time I told the story to somebody, they’d be like, “Okay, it’s a cool story, but is it an American film or is it a Chinese film? And who’s the market for this?” So instead of just telling the story, I always had to first explain what it was, which is a very outside-in perspective—to be like, “Let me first put it into a box for you before I even explore the story for myself.”
Whereas with This American Life, I told the story and they were like, “That’s crazy that happened to you. How did that feel?” And, “Your Little Nai Nai said that? Can we talk to her? Oh, how did your parents feel about that? Can we interview them?”
It came from a place of curiosity and investigation and asking questions, and they helped me to open up my lens to the whole thing. I wouldn’t maybe have necessarily thought to interview my parents, right? Because journalists do that. That whole process made me realize I made a lot of assumptions.
When I had to record, it was like 10 P.M. at the This American Life office, and it was just me and Neil Drumming, the producer. I went and had a whiskey in Ira Glass’s secret library and recorded it. It’s hard to describe what that felt like, just me and a microphone and Neil. To know that within however long, less than a week, everybody would hear it and that was it. The purity was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The process of that, the immediacy of it, made me realize it’s why I wanted to go into storytelling in the first place.
Did this movie give you cause to think about death in a different way or how different cultures process it?
I don’t know if it was for me to think about death in a different way. But it was a very humbling experience because it made me realize that the lie itself, something I was so opposed to, is actually the thing that allowed me to spend more time with my grandma. I made this movie in China and I actually got to spend time there.
It taught me that there’s so much that I don’t know and that we as humans will never truly know, but we’re all trying to find the answers. We’re all trying to put things in boxes. Making this movie taught me that maybe that’s not the point, but that it really is more about compassion and respect and trying to better understand each other, and the importance of asking questions as opposed to making assumptions.
There are a lot of beautiful scenes featuring food in The Farewell—at the wedding, for instance, but also in the family home. What role did food play in your family life?
Food is very much a source of both love and tension. In my family, and especially when I go back to China, it’s always like, prepare your stomach, because it’s the way that they express love. It would be insulting to not eat the food. But when you’re grieving, when you’re going through something difficult, you lose your appetite. You don’t want to eat. People are also always commenting on your weight, while at the same time forcing you to eat, so it’s very complicated.
At dinner last night, people kept putting things on my plate and I was like, “I will eat the food that I want to eat—stop force feeding me things that I don’t want!” And they’re like, “But it’s lobster, it’s good for you.” I was like, “I know, but I just had lobster pasta yesterday! Did you know that? No, you didn’t. So I don’t want the lobster. I don’t care how good it is.”
But it’s hard because then you feel like you’re snapping at them, so I wanted to use food to create that source of tension. Not just as food porn, which is what food in Asian stories often is. I feel like we don’t explore enough that sometimes the pushing of food can be a source of tension, a source of discomfort, particularly in this story, right, when [Billi] doesn’t feel like eating.
What are your comfort foods?
Oh, I have so many. Pork belly, sushi. A lot of Asian foods, I’ve found. Because I travel all the time now I’m just like, “I cannot eat another steak. I cannot eat another brick roasted chicken.”
Give me rice.
Yes. Last night, my mom was like, “Rice is cheap. Don’t eat the rice, eat the lobster.” I was like, “You don’t understand. All anyone feeds me is steak and lobster. I just want some white rice porridge with, like, a salted duck egg.”
The Farewell is on limited release now and will be released nationally on August 2.