Chinese-American Billi (rapper-actor Nora Lum, a.k.a. Awkwafina, in a stunning performance) faces an impossible dilemma in The Farewell, the sophomore effort by writer-director Lulu Wang. Billi’s grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in China, is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and the family has decided to keep the truth from her in an attempt to spare her from emotional suffering in her final days. They’ve arranged a staged wedding in China as a rouse to give everyone in the family a last chance to say goodbye, but Billi finds it difficult to keep the earth-shattering secret from her beloved Nai Nai.
The film is based on a “real lie” Wang’s family has chosen to tell Nai Nai, who is alive as of this writing. Keeping secrets like this from family members is traditional in Asian cultures, and the film wrestles with the hazy morality of these types of lies from Wang’s perspective, via Billi. PopMatters met with Wang in San Francisco prior to the film’s release to discuss being uncompromising as an Asian American filmmaker, negotiating between two cultures as a first-generation immigrant, filming in Nai Nai’s neighborhood, and more.
Film Strip by joseph_alban (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Can you walk me through how the movie came to be?
This happened to me in 2013. I was in post-production on my first feature, Posthumous  and I was in Berlin. My parents told me about how we couldn’t tell [Nai Nai] and about how there was going to be a wedding. Right after that happened, I wanted to make it into a film to explore some of the feelings I was experiencing, but nobody wanted to make it the way that I wanted to make it. The question they kept asking was, “Is it Chinese, or it is an American film?”
I don’t know… am I Chinese or am I American? I guess I’m American. But then they would say, “Okay, well if it’s American, then we have to cast white people, and they have to live in the US and they shouldn’t go back to China.”
They wanted to cast white people as the family?
Yeah. They were like, “This could be any family, right?” And I was like, “I don’t think it can be…” It’s a specifically first-generation immigrant story. But that’s no less American.
So then I started talking to some Chinese investors, and they were like, “Okay, great, but the main character can’t be Billi. Chinese people won’t resonate with Billi because her perspective is too American. It has to be about her relationship with a Chinese cousin, and in the end, she realizes that the Chinese are great and they’re the best and everything they said was right. That what the movie’s about.” And I was like, “No. That’s not what the movie is about.” And then they were like, “Then she’ll bring home her white boyfriend.”
Did they really say all of that stuff?
Yeah. I was like, I can’t do this. I can’t make these movies. My movie is something else that I can’t just put on a paper and say, “These are the comps,” because there aren’t a lot of comps. Maybe Ang Lee? But it’s also different than that.
Awkwafina as Billi (trailer screengrab)
How did you react when these investors insisted on making the movie their way?
I guess the way I thought of it was, is the story contingent on how I was raised? There are some stories where you can cast anybody and it’s not contingent on [race or culture]. But for this [story], it was so specific and personal. I thought about it for literally one second to realize that [casting white people] wouldn’t work, because I’m not white, and the cultural differences are so specific for this story that I don’t know that it would apply [to other cultures]. It was just silly.
But also, having made Posthumous, I knew how much work it takes to make a movie, and I knew that this film was going to be something special that was culturally specific but universal at the same time. That was the movie I wanted to make. If I couldn’t make that movie, I wasn’t going to spend the next five years of my life on something else.
For Asian Americans like me, representation in film is super important, and it’s great that there are filmmakers like you who are uncompromising in that way. Is it difficult to be uncompromising in those situations?
It’s definitely difficult to be uncompromising. But for me, at this point in my life, it’s much more difficult to be compromising.
If you’re uncompromising and something doesn’t work, at least you stuck to your guns and you know what you’re working towards. But there are so few of us [Asian American filmmakers] that, if I did compromise and it didn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. The chances of success for us are [so low] that you might as well take the risk, you know? If you compromise, and it doesn’t work, you have no one to blame but yourself because you didn’t go all the way.
Is it hard to struggle and fight for all of these little details? Absolutely. But for me, those battles actually embolden me because it challenges me to really think about what I want and why it’s important. It helps me to formulate and communicate why something is important to me. If I can’t express it, then maybe the problem is me. Maybe I haven’t fully gotten a grasp on what I want to do or say.
When you work with great producers, particularly who are not from the culture that you are from, and you’re making a culturally specific movie, there’s a lot of difficult communication. “That is not the truth that I live, and you’re not from my world. This is how it is.” And they go, “But I don’t get it. Explain it.” And yeah, it gets exhausting. You have to explain more than maybe another filmmaker who isn’t Asian, who isn’t first-generation, who is maybe from the same background as the producers, you know?
But as a first-generation immigrant who’s constantly negotiating between two cultures, I’m used to it, too. That’s been my entire life, trying to negotiate between my family and their culture and my independent life as an American.
A couple of years ago, my family asked me to maintain a similar lie. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of withholding dire information as an act of mercy, and neither was my wife, who is white. Have you found that these kinds of lies are specific to Asian cultures, or are they common in any other cultures as well?
It’s definitely specific to Asians, but it goes beyond Asians. I’ve had people from Middle-Eastern cultures, South American cultures, Egyptian… it tends to be older cultures that are very based on the family unit as a collective that really relies on that structure. Less so modern societies that are more about the individual, where families are more separated. It’s been really surprising how common it is, especially in Asian countries.
When I was watching the movie, what struck me was… you needed to cast an actor with an interesting face. A lot of the best moments in the film are of Billi sitting still, not saying a word. Were you cognizant of that when you cast Awkwafina?
Absolutely. I knew that Billi would not be able to express her [true feelings] in the movie. I didn’t want to cheat and use voiceover. It’s a very simple setup once you know where she is emotionally, but it takes a very special actor to be able to pull off all of those emotions on their face and sustain the entire film going from scene to scene in a way that doesn’t feel repetitive.
She has such an expressive face that can play both the grief and the humor, sometimes both at the same time. That’s what I loved about her performance.
This is Awkwafina’s first dramatic turn as an actor. Was it a natural transition for her?
Based on her own relationship with her own grandmother, she had a very personal relationship to the story. But she was very intimidated. She had never done a leading, dramatic role. It was all very new to her. She didn’t know if she would be able to cry, and she didn’t know if that would feel real. There were definitely a lot of challenges and times when I really had to encourage her.
To me, it was a natural fit. I knew as soon as I saw her audition tape that she would be great. Sometimes I had to steer her away from comedy because she naturally leaned toward comedy in her acting, so I oftentimes had to strip all of that away. So when you had just pure Nora, who loves her grandma and doesn’t want to lose her, there’s a purity and innocence there that’s so lovely.
Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai (trailer screengrab)
Does your grandma know that the movie is about her?
No. She knows I made a movie, but she doesn’t know what it’s about. But I got to spend time with her during production.
Did filming in her town and spending time with her while you were in production inform your work?
A little bit. But she wasn’t there all the time. Certainly, the film was very personal on many levels, and it was very meta that we shot in my grandma’s neighborhood, and my grandma came to the set. We shot at my grandfather’s grave. Every day that we were shooting was tinged with this level of emotion and personal connection that is intangible, but I’m certain it infused itself into all of the scenes.
The movie seems to hinge on tone quite a bit. If it was too sad it would feel like some kind of dirge, and if it was too funny perhaps the humor would undermine the drama. Tell us about navigating the movie’s tonal shifts from scene to scene.
I didn’t set out to direct a comedy, and I never do. That’s just not the kind of director or writer I am. But I always find the humor in scenes. Sometimes it’s not even on the page. I’ll write a serious scene that reveals something about the characters, or it’s a dramatic plot point. I’m not writing for jokes. But tone is always in the back of my mind, so when I get on set, I look for ways to find that tone within the scene, whether that’s through production design, through blocking actors, the composition of the camera.
That’s the way that I find the humor, and usually, the actors don’t even know I’m doing it. They’ll later watch the movie and say, “It’s so funny! I had no idea it was so funny.” That’s intentional because I don’t want them to feel that they’re in a comedy. Their performances would be less grounded.
How have non-Asian people reacted to the film?
A woman who is white and young said to my friend, who is Asian, “I’ve just never felt so represented in a film before.” He was like, “Be careful what you say there. You have plenty of representation because you’re white. This isn’t for you to feel represented.” She was like, “I come from Eastern Europe, and I’m an immigrant. I came when I was twelve, and my grandma lives [back home].”
Sometimes we make assumptions about people. Like, you’re white, so you must relate to all white people on the screen. But in many ways, maybe even white stories deserve more specificity.
Why don’t we have more immigrant stories? Whatever color you are…it’s about the specificity of the story [the woman] connected to. The idea of immigration, of leaving your family behind. She hadn’t felt that represented on screen before, and she had every right to feel that way.