Film director Lulu Wang knew her pitch for “The Farewell” was unconventional.
She wanted to make an autobiographical drama about the time when, in 2013, her family learned that her grandmother in China, affectionately called Nai Nai, had stage 4 lung cancer and was given three months to live. The grim diagnosis was kept from Nai Nai, a somewhat common approach to death and dying in China.
Wang, whose family had moved from Beijing to Florida when she was 6, had doubts. Still, she reluctantly went along with the well-intended deceit, flying back for a cousin’s wedding hurried along as an excuse to reunite the family before Nai Nai was expected to die.
Wang first told the story for a 2016 episode of “This American Life.” She envisioned a movie about grief and identity and family, riven with cultural and ethical divides between East and West, parent and child, set largely in her grandmother’s hometown of Changchun in northeastern China.
“When I was first pitching it, it’s almost like you want to start by saying, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I want to make an American film — meaning tonally American, American financed — that’s like 100% Asian or American-Asian cast and 75% in Mandarin with subtitles. Cool, right? Green light? Where’s the money?’” Wang recalls, laughing.
And yet “The Farewell” not only eventually got a green light (“About a Boy” producer Chris Weitz happened to hear that “This American Life” episode), but after Wang unveiled it earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, it sparked a bidding war. On a wave of teary-eyed responses from moviegoers and raves from critics, “The Farewell” emerged as one of the breakthroughs in American independent cinema this year. Even if the movie still eludes classification for some.
“People are like, ‘Is it an American film? Is it a Chinese film?’ It’s an American film as much as I am American,” Wang, who lives in Los Angeles, said in an interview in early June.
“The Farewell,” which A24 will release in select theaters Friday, stars Nora Lum (aka Awkwafina) as Billi, a stand-in for Wang. One of the co-stars, Nai Nai’s sister Hong Lu, plays herself. Several of the locations are where Wang’s family drama actually played out. Wang’s parents visited the set, as did (spoiler alert) the real Nai Nai, who at 86 has far outlived her original prognosis but remains in the dark about her family’s 2013 scheme.
“She would come to set but she didn’t really know what we were doing so we had to kind of protect her,” says Lum. “It was like ‘The Farewell’ in real life.”
“It’s very meta,” Wang grants.
As personal as “The Farewell” is to Wang, it has been deeply felt by a broad spectrum of viewers who see in it a reflection of the harmony and discord that hum through families. Wang captures the tender, bittersweet relationship between Billi and her grandmother, and, with wide lenses, the celebrations and pains of the extended family. “I wanted to put the grief and the humor all in one frame,” says Wang.
The movie has special resonance for many Asian Americans who see in “The Farewell” not just characters and faces seldom found on American screens, but a recognizable familial world that straddles borders. That’s especially true for Lum, who was raised in Queens, New York, by her grandmother after her mother, a South Korean immigrant, died when she was 4.
“When the script came to me, it was called ‘Grandma’ and it was about this very special relationship between a girl and her grandmother that I never thought I would see in a movie — especially one that was Asian-American and so close to home,” says Lum. “I had to do this for my grandmother.”
This was before Lum’s breakout performance in last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” and Wang grants that the “rapper-comedian-influencer I knew from music videos like ‘My Vag’” wasn’t the obvious choice for such a dramatic role. But she was convinced by a self-taped audition that Lum, who had to improve her Mandarin for the part, could skillfully render Billi’s conflicted emotions with subtlety.
“I wanted the part so bad,” says Lum. “I hired a voice coach and everything.”
Lum’s initial fears about things like crying on camera quickly receded once she was in China for the production.
“There’s a lot of questions that come up when you do a movie like this about your own identity, going back home, what is home. Am I Asian there? Am I not Asian enough? Am I not American enough?” says Lum. “These are questions that every Asian-American or any dash-American struggles with their whole life.”
Wang has witnessed the emotional responses her film has engendered. In one instance, she recalls seeing audience members hand tissues to a young, sobbing Asian American man.
“This is why we go to the movie theater. It’s like a catharsis,” says Wang.
As an American-Chinese co-production, her film will also have a release in China. “That’s kind of how I see the movie now. It’s a communal grieving of both the literal people that we love and the places and ideas that we have to let go of,” she says.
That belief in the power of the theatrical experience might have had something to do with Wang’s decision to accept A24′s roughly $6 million offer for the film at Sundance even though Netflix offered more than double that.
Her parents had flown to Utah for the premiere (after the credits rolled, Wang’s dad could be heard throughout the theater declaring, “Pretty good!”) and Wang, whose 2014 debut “Posthumous” didn’t find distribution, was prepared for an argument with them about the deal. But her mother encouraged her to look after “her baby.”
“I said: I want to go with A24. I think that they’ll treat the film in a way that will give the film a longer life, a better life,” says Wang. “In many ways I was really proud of myself. You can ask yourself that question on principle but until you’re in that situation you never know what you’re going to do. It was in that moment where I realized I don’t care about that. That’s not how I value my life.”