“Based on an actual lie.” That’s how Lulu Wang’s new film The Farewell starts out, before China-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) returns to Changchun as her family prepares to say goodbye to their matriarch Nai Nai, who’s been diagnosed with cancer.
The one catch: Nai Nai doesn’t know she’s sick.
Based on Wang’s actual experience (which she shared in an episode of This American Life), the family has come together under the guise of a wedding—with the agreement to not tell Nai Nai about her disease. Or, as Billi’s mom puts it, “There’s a saying in China: When you get cancer, you die.” And so Billi is left to navigate not just a family get together, but how to get closure with a loved one who doesn’t know she’s dying.
In that way the film is both oddly specific while still feeling universal. Though the Chinese backdrop and customs are intrinsic to Billi (or Wang), there’s an aching bittersweetness to the whole affair. The film revels in this the tricky gray area of a life that feels halved—half truths told to soothe family worries, homelands traveled through as an outsider, the family get-togethers that make you want to laugh and cry.
We talked to Lulu Wang about how she captured that balance on film, and finding clarity on her own family through making a film about the lack of resolution.
To start off: I wanted to talk about how you saw the role of the camera in The Farewell. I’ve seen it twice now, and loved it each time, and it seemed like you had a very distinct message for what you wanted to do with the framing.
Anna Franquesa Solano was my DP—we talked about the camera as staying out of the way as much as possible. One of the reasons we had these wider frames is that we wanted the actors and the characters to just kind of exist within this frame, almost spilling out of the frame, so that it’s almost like you can’t contain the family within the frame. They’re so vibrant that they exist, there’s so much more that goes out of the frame.
The wide aspect ratio is normally just for like landscapes, so we really wanted that to convey the landscape of a family, and do these static shots where they could move within the frame and move out of the frame. It was more about blocking with the actors as opposed to moving with the camera.
On top of that, having this still frame and having the camera be very still made it feel theatrical, and gives it a sort of performative nature, which goes along with the theme of family putting on a performance for Nai Nai. They’re performing their emotions, they’re performing a wedding; it’s not real. So with these static frames, and the actors just kind of moving through it, you see this almost kind of theater happening. And it also allowed us to then contrast: Really when we do move the camera it’s in a very purposeful way; you really feel that movement, because the camera had been so still throughout the film.
So for example, when Billi runs to the hospital: We shot that from a van, and did it all in one take down the street. And it’s a very very long take…because it’s the first time she actually has momentum, where she actually has agency and decides to do something. Same thing with the drinking game [at the wedding], we really feel the camera movement there, [it’s] spinning because everything is coming to a head. All of the emotions are coming to a head, both the joy and the sadness. And all the drinking.
Jumping off your point about all these emotions coming to a head—this film has such a deft balance of all these different tones in a way that feels very realistic, where you’re looking back on all these heightened, dramatic situations with your family and realizing OK that was a little ridiculous, I can laugh at it now.
How did you go into it knowing how you wanted to handle that tonal shift?
I think that it’s something that I’ve always felt about my family in general: There is this close proximity of drama and grief to the humor and the joy; so often I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And I think that’s the lens through which I see so much of the world, and I get that from my family, because that’s their perspective often as well. They’re always trying to find the humor even in the darkest times. And there’s always weight behind the humor, as an immigrant family.
So even the joy and the humor in my family isn’t light; there’s a lot of context behind this family, having emigrated and having sacrificed so many things in order to immigrate. So I guess that’s the kind of dark comedy as a lens through which I see everything, and particularly in this situation because everything was condensed into such a short amount of time. And everything felt heightened—the laughter, the joy, the grief felt heightened.
So it was always my intention to make the film so you felt both things simultaneously. Or maybe with different viewings of the film you felt different emotions. Because even while I was experiencing it, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It wasn’t like there was somebody there who was like This is a comedy. You are now given permission to laugh. But there were these moments throughout the week where I could feel the sort of ridiculous set up of a situation we were in.
Given that this is a mix of pulled from your life and fictionalized, did you have a clarity that came out of either the writing or directing process around the themes like lying to your family members? How many of these bigger ideas were just pulled out of you from the experience yourself and how many did you feel like you got once it was on paper or on film?
I think it was probably both. The film as well as the radio story on This American Life, they were both opportunities for me to explore the complicated feelings, the complicated dynamics, and all of these questions I had about what was right and what was wrong.
And being able to make this film—in the process of making this film I had a lot of conversations with my family that I don’t think I would’ve had otherwise, because we’re just busy and whatever. But because I wanted to do them justice, and properly show the perspective of the other family members, I had a lot of conversations. So it really did help me to better understand the other side, and the intent of the lie.
I think the thing that came out of it the most though—because people always ask me, “Do you agree with it? Do you think it’s right? If you were diagnosed would you want your family to lie to you?” And it’s not an easy question, because I don’t think I have any more answers than when I first had this experience. I think that I still feel very strongly about my American, Western values, about truth. But I do have a lot more understanding of the other side as well, of the root of something like this, where it comes from, and that it doesn’t come from a bad place, you know? It just comes from a different set of values that are not necessarily better or worse. I think each set of values—whether it’s individualism or collectivism—I think both have their downsides when you take it to an extreme. And that’s why it’s important to have these discussions, so we can somehow find a balance—a yin and a yang, if you will.
How did you seek to find that balance on film?
I guess while I was writing it I wanted to make sure that we were moving back and forth between the two sides. Because that’s how I felt during the experience, and so often I think in American films or American storytelling structure there’s this desire to move towards an answer, to move towards catharsis, to move towards the low point, a moment where everything comes to a head, right? The obvious choice being that Nai Nai finds out the truth—without getting into any spoilers. But you know what I mean: there’s this obvious structure of needing heightened drama and catharsis.
And it made me really think about how, in many ways, that storytelling structure comes from Western tradition. Because in real life, in my life, and if you’re looking at Eastern culture—you don’t get catharsis, you know? And I think so often in life we don’t get that arc that we seek in stories. We don’t get to say goodbye, we don’t have that final closure moment of cathartic release. And so much of the of struggle for Billi, because she’s American, is she’s looking for that in this experience. She wants this emotional release with her grandma, the ability to say goodbye. And her family is like, That’s not good for anyone! We don’t want that. So in order to maintain the core of what the movie really is, and what the tensions are thematically, I had to fight against my own instincts to create plot points that would move the story towards the expected place that audiences—including myself!—are looking for.
And so much of the framing, and the sound design, and the music, are created to juxtapose this same theme of the collective versus the individual. We would have frames that were filled with family, but then when you take them all away and you just have Billi in the frame, you really feel her isolation in this very wide frame.
It also felt like the frame would keep its focal point on Nai Nai. Whether she was in the center of the shot or off to the side, it felt like all the family would convalesce onto her.
Yes, absolutely! Because even though Billi’s the main character—she’s the protagonist, because she’s a conduit for the audience to come into this world. But the center of the family, its matriarch , is Nai Nai.
One of my favorite scenes of the movie—just loved the idea of it, and when we came to execute it, it was all one take; it just came together magically, and very quickly, as I had imagined it and even better—and that’s the scene with all the bowing [at the graveyard], and she’s leading the bowing. And you really see how she’s the linchpin of the whole family. Without her, we don’t know if the family would get together.
Given the tag at the end that your Nai Nai is still with us—I know my theater sighed in relief, both times—have you shown her the movie?
Yeah it’s really complicated for many reasons. One, you know, we said we shouldn’t talk about it too much in the media because it’s a spoiler. We really want audiences to go in not knowing.
And yeah, I don’t really have the answers to that; it’s a question that, like in the movie, it’s bigger than me. It’s up to my family, I don’t live with her. So I guess I’m just mostly focused on doing right by the film, and hopefully getting it out into the world. And I think my family are torn as well. So we’ll try to figure it out.