How Awkwafina and director Lulu Wang told an authentic — and universal — story with The Farewell
The comedian fares well in the Sundance drama.
This weekend, nestled right in the middle of the latest MCU installment and Disney’s next “live-action” remake of an animated classic, marks the release of The Farewell, the second feature from writer-director Lulu Wang and one of this summer’s must-see indies.
The drama — which currently boasts a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes — premiered at Sundance in January, where critics promptly hailed it as one of the best of the fest and eternally hip indie distributor A24 snapped up the rights for a reported $6 million.
Awkwafina stars (in her first dramatic lead role) as Billi, a young Chinese-American woman who finds out that her beloved grandmother has cancer. In accordance with Chinese tradition, however, Billi’s family decides not to tell Nai Nai about her own terminal diagnosis, and in order to visit the ailing matriarch one last time while still concealing the truth of her condition, they quickly plan a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to gather in China.
Inspired by a similar episode from the filmmaker’s own life, The Farewell opens with the enigmatic title card, “based on an actual lie.” But while it may be a big lie that gives the story its central conflict, it’s the film’s great truthfulness that makes it so affecting.
“When I initially talked to people about it, the instinct from a lot of companies was to make it broad,” Wang tells EW. “I think people immediately thought, like, ‘Great, we haven’t had a My Big Fat Greek Wedding in a long time, this would be like the Chinese version of that.’” While producers kept pushing for Wang to refashion the protagonist as the impromptu bride, however, the filmmaker resisted. “I just kept feeling like that’s not a script that I could write,” she says. “It wasn’t true to my experience.”
After sharing her own story on This American Life, Wang attracted the attention of producer Chris Weitz, who signed on to develop the script with her on spec, and then Big Beach ended up financing the lauded indie — without making the filmmaker turn her own story into a rom-com.
“It was really important to me to make this film not according to the constructs of a genre, but according to emotions and the authenticity of the experience — and also about, well, what was this character’s journey really about?” Wang says. “It wasn’t about marrying a man or not marrying this man; it was really focused on her relationship to a country that she left when she was very young.”
That rang true not only for the director but for her star as well. The Farewell was largely shot in Wang’s family’s hometown, and the experience of making a movie there was “extraordinary; it was out-of-body; it was unlike any movie experience I’d ever had,” says Awkwafina, who was raised in New York by her own Chinese grandmother. “Because I think when an Asian-American returns to Asia, there are a lot of questions about your own identity [that] come up — how you negotiate between your family and your friends, how you negotiate between how Asian you are and how American you are, how you negotiate between what your family believes and what you were taught to believe by your own culture.”
For Wang, too, the experience of recreating her own story was a profound one. “It was emotional, but it was also really cathartic,” the filmmaker says of the “beautiful” process of making the film. “Because I didn’t want to just present it from my perspective; I wanted to show, [to] understand this culture and why they decided to keep this secret. And through that process, I felt like I — not just as a filmmaker but as a person — got to understand my family better, and the culture better.”
Part of that understanding comes in the details, and the cultural specificity with which Wang tells her story gives the film texture and authenticity. “I didn’t want to overexplain scenarios in the film for a non-Chinese-American audience,” she states. “I feel like part of the experience for me, for Billi, for Awkwafina as well, as a person — when you go back to Asia, there’s a lot of stuff that you don’t understand, and people expect you to understand it because you look like them. And I wanted the audience to have that same experience.”
So it may seem strange that the wedding takes place in the daytime, for instance, or that people are wearing T-shirts there, but “we’re not hand-holding” on a tour of another culture, Wang says, “and I think that’s one of the reasons why people are seeing their own families through it. I knew that I had to dive into the specificities rather than trying to make it general in order to make it universal, because I strongly believe that the specifics are what makes a story universal if you’re coming at it from a human level.”
Her star is in complete agreement. “I really hope that when people see it, they take the chance to learn about another culture, but also to understand how we’re all similar and how universal a lot of these problems are,” Awkwafina says. “And [I hope] it won’t maybe just get stuck in a genre — it’ll be bigger than that. I think that’s really important for it.”
The Farewell hits theaters Jul. 12.