Laughing through the tears: Lulu Wang navigates contradictions in The Farewell

Opening in the middle of the hot, hazy blockbuster season, Lulu Wang's The Farewell — based on a very personal, bittersweet experience from her own life — is being described as an indie hit of the summer.

Dramedy 'based on an actual lie' arrives in theatres on a wave of acclaim

The Farewell is a multi-generational, cross-cultural family tale that balances comedy and drama, English and Mandarin, and other seemingly contradictory notions. (VVS Films)

A woman stands between two cultures, juxtaposing Eastern and Western morality. She feels the urge to laugh as a stoic man breaks down in tears. She grapples with whether lying can be the right thing to do.

With her new film The Farewell, Lulu Wang explores a sea of contradictory notions by revisiting a very personal experience: her family's decision to keep her grandmother's terminal cancer diagnosis from the matriarch herself.

Instead, the far-flung family unites for an expedited wedding to surreptitiously bid farewell to their beloved Nai Nai.

Adapting this unusual experience into the feature-length comedic drama, as well as an earlier audio doc for NPR's This American Life, was "like therapy" for the Chinese-American filmmaker.

"It was my way of exploring my own complicated feelings," Wang revealed during a stop in Toronto this week, as her film gradually rolls out in theatres across North America.

Writer-director Lulu Wang's second feature film, The Farewell, premiered at Sundance and was picked up for worldwide distribution by indie studio A24. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"When I was experiencing it, I found myself often wanting to laugh through the tears. Actually, what helped me survive was [being] a little bit objective and [saying], 'This is actually kind of crazy and ridiculous.'"

In real life, she added, "we are not given a prescription of how you're supposed to react and how you're supposed to feel.… No one tells you, 'This event is going to be a comedy.'"

Why The Farewell's Lulu Wang is ok whether you laugh or cry at her film

3 years ago
Duration 2:42
'I've never wanted to restrict people's reactions,' says the filmmaker of the acclaimed indie dramedy, based on an experience from her own life.

Opening in the middle of the hot, hazy blockbuster season, Wang's quietly uplifting tale has been described as an indie hit of the summer after building up a rare list of kudos in the past six months.

The Farewell rides into theatres on a wave of festival circuit acclaim following its much-praised debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was scooped up by indie studio A24. Filmed a year ago in her grandmother's hometown of Changchun, China — including scenes from the cemetery where her grandfather is buried, as well as the banquet hall where her cousin was married — the movie has landed Wang on several of Hollywood's "filmmakers to watch" lists.

When The Farewell officially hit cinemas on July 12, opening in four locations, the limited release managed to rack up the highest per-screen box office of any film so far this year (Yes, more than Avengers: Endgame). As it expands to further locations, the film currently holds a 100 per cent positive rating from film critics and a 95 per cent audience score on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.

New side to a comedy star

Along with heaping praise on the film's assured direction and atmospheric cinematography, many have singled out The Farewell's star Awkwafina, the online rapper-turned-comedic darling better known for her raucous, scene-stealing turns in Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians.

The actress, born Nora Lum, shows a completely new side in The Farewell as the main character Billi, who must navigate both tragedy and comedy — oftentimes without saying a word.

Wang, left, said she instantly knew Awkwafina was 'the one' after watching the comedic actress and rapper's audition tape. (Brian Ach/Invision/Associated Press)

"[Her] audition tape convinced me that she was the one. As soon as I watched the tape, I thought she was perfect," Wang said.

"What I wanted Billi to be was a conduit for the audience: for every Asian-American woman who has been through this experience or a similar experience. For every immigrant American who is caught between worlds. For every woman who feels the pressure from the family to have a partner, so that their dying grandmother can live to see their wedding."

Telling an authentic story

The Farewell arrives at a time when Hollywood has started to open its gates to a wider range of stories and storytellers — including stars and filmmakers of Asian heritage. But it hasn't been an easy road.

"When I first started pitching the story and I had started writing the script, a lot of producers would ask me if it was an American film or a Chinese film," Wang recounted.

When she told U.S. producers she intended to cast all Asians and Asian-Americans for the English- and Mandarin-language film, "the producers would say, 'Well, then it's not an American movie. If there's subtitles, it's a foreign film.'"

On the flip side, a Chinese investor she approached balked at the main character, believing that Billi would not resonate with Chinese audiences "as a foreigner or Westerner coming in and being shocked by what the family is doing."

Wang was finally able to move forward on making The Farewell only after she recounted a version of the story on This American Life. And after staying true to her desire for cultural specificity and a distinctly Asian-American perspective, Wang's feature has been received warmly by a diverse range of film festival audiences and movie critics.

There's been one reaction, for instance, that she's heard from many an audience member, regardless of ethnicity.

"The thing that moves me the most is whenever people tell me that they saw the film and they immediately called their grandmother," Wang noted.

"I sort of have this vision of, as the movie releases into the world, that it's like the butterfly effect, where all these grandmas all over the world — their phones are like lighting up.… That just makes my heart happy."

Wang initially struggled to convince both American and Chinese film industry figures to come on board. The tide turned, however, after she told a version of the story on This American Life. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

And now she's the one being approached to consider new projects.

"Certainly people are more willing to work with me because they've heard my name being thrown around or maybe they've seen the movie themselves. I definitely get a lot of Asian scripts — like, 'It's just like your film, but a little different.'"

However, the challenge going forward for Beijing-born Wang, whose family emigrated to Miami when she was six, is to tell different types of stories and continue working with risk-taking collaborators.

"My films are a way for me to explore questions — not necessarily with a need to find an answer, but to kind of look at both sides. I need to tell stories that have a lot of nuance, have a lot of grey zones, because I've spent my entire life negotiating between two cultures, two worlds, two languages."


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