Awkwafina stars in “The Farewell” as Billi, a Chinese-American woman caught up in a lie that her whole family is in on—her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) has cancer, and is also the only one who doesn’t know that. Along with her parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, Billi travels to China to help throw a wedding for one of her cousins, an occasion for family members to be around Nai Nai under the guise of a celebration even though everyone is in mourning. A masterful comedy of grief ensues, especially as everyone tries to hold face in front of the scene-stealing, ebullient Zhao, who thinks she’s a part of a long-overdue family reunion. (Click here to read Christy Lemire's four-star review of "The Farewell.")
It’s a story that actually happened to writer/director Lulu Wang and her family, all of them trying to protect her grandmother from similar bad news. Back in 2016, Wang first shared the tale on an episode of NPR’s “This American Life,” which soon led to the film version, of which Wang premiered at Sundance this year. You can listen to the podcast episode “What You Don’t Know” here.
“The Farewell” is Wang’s second film to date, having made her debut with the Jack Huston and Brit Marling 2014 screwball comedy "Posthumous" and honed her voice in short film with the 2015 project “Touch,” a fleet and also true tragedy about cultural differences regarding a Chinese man and a young American boy. "The Farewell" is like a strong blend of the two, with Wang citing the likes of Billy Wilder, Hirokazu Kore-eda and "The Godfather" as inspirations.
On the morning after "The Farewell" played to a sold-out audience at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, Wang spoke with RogerEbert.com about the real-life experiences behind the movie, how horror films influenced the way her characters deal with Nai Nai, the striking way in which "The Farewell" is visually told and more.
Would you want to know if you were sick?
I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. But I’ll tell you a story—I asked my mother ... they were really pressuring me to support the decision of the family and not go against the family. So I said, “But we live in America, and I’m first-generation, so how do we do it in America? Would you want to know? Would you want me to lie to you?” And they were like, “No, are you crazy?” So on one hand, they’re defending the decision of the family in China, and that I should respect the decision, but on the other hand they think it’s absolutely crazy if I were to do the same for them. And they said, “Also, it’s a moot question, because you live in America and it is illegal in America to not tell someone, because the doctor would already tell the patient. There’s no scenario in which the doctor would tell the family first. You don’t even have to worry about it because that’s the system here." She said, “The real question you should ask, is your father or I got very sick, and the doctor told us, would we tell you?” I was like, “What!” I totally freaked out. “I’ve never thought of that before! Are you guys ok?!” But now I’m paranoid because all of the time I’m going to think there’s something wrong and they’re not telling me.
Do you accept that surface-level as an inevitability, that emotions are about people being composed?
I don’t think it’s my job as a storyteller to go one way or the other. It’s really just my way to portray two sides of a situation, and that everyone on every side of the coin has their own perspective. They believe it’s right from their perspective. You understand their motivation as well, and in the end it sort of leads you to question what is right. And maybe the answer is that there is no one right way, and I think ultimately for me that so much of the journey, and the story, was a way of finding grace as a human in a world with so many different perspectives and cultures and generations, they see things differently. And we are living in such a polarized society right now. And how do we all live in this world and get along and love our family when we have different points of view?
This also reminds me of the tensions within your short film “Touch.” Do you feel you’re particularly interested in presenting this difference, and letting individual perspectives answer to what they feel is right and wrong?
Yeah, I think I just like to explore things that make you think in a way you’ve never thought before, because we all love to make judgments from the place that we stand, and we don’t realize how small we are from the one place that we stand is just one place. And if you sort of step to the side, you might just see a different direction. I think my job, and what I’m interested in, when I see something that I’ve never thought about before, and then I dig a little deeper and I’m like, “Wow, I’ve never thought about that,” I like to portray all sides of it and not make any judgements.
How did you know that this story could be funny—that sense of grief, contrasted with people trying to hold face? What gave you the confidence that it could work tonally?
I think it was just my lens through which I see everything. My mother and my father are both very funny people, and they’re both artistic in their own right. Oftentimes, we get very dramatic about things, but we also laugh really hard. I’ve always loved that expression that “The sublime is one step removed from the ridiculous.” I think it’s Napoleon, it’s been said by a lot of people. But the sublime, and this idea that the sublime and the ridiculous are rolled up in one, and that I am often, my first film was a screwball comedy, and I think that life often has these screwball setups in real life, in a real way, and you just go, “this is terrible, but also hilarious at the same time.” I felt that way in China during the experience. If I looked over here, at the conversation I was having with my mother, I would feel like it was a drama. But then I would look to the right and I would see what the masseuse parlor women were doing, or what the context of the situation was, and I would think it was hilarious.
"The Farewell" is like a blend of a lot of what you've done previously: the character-based comedy of screwball, and the tone of more direct drama. How do you feel you’ve grown as a filmmaker since your debut?
I think that in my first film I had never made a film, I didn’t go to film school, and I didn’t make a short before that. I just didn’t even know if I could make a movie, so I approached it like an exercise of, “How do I make a good movie?” And I also stuck with the genre, like what are things that the genre does, and how do I put my own stamp on it but how do I still fulfill what the genre needs? And then for this film, I deconstructed it much more, where the only thing I kept was this idea of a screwball, and what that does for me as audience member when I watch screwball. Oftentimes, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And Billy Wilder is a huge inspiration. But aside from that, I didn’t really stick to the conventions of a particular genre, in fact I tried to play against, or the expectation of what a Chinese-American family comedy would look like and feel like. I drew influence from Mike Leigh, Ruben Ostlund, a lot of Scandinavian filmmakers, Lukas Moodysson. I also drew influence from horror films and thrillers, which is something I would never think to do earlier in my career.
If I was making a particular genre, those were the influences I was going to seek out. But with this film, because I was trying to break convention ... so much of the movie is about interiority and how you sustain tension when there’s a monster in the room nobody is talking about, but how you make sure the audience knows is always present. And so, horror does that so great, as there is a set-up and a conceit, and once it’s setup you almost never have to talk about it, you just know that it’s there. Like, if there’s noise, the monster comes. You set that up and let that go, and then you let the audience anticipate when the other shoe is going to drop. Literally and metaphorically. And that’s what I was trying to do, build atmosphere and tension throughout this, of people anticipating the thing that no one is talking about.
What horror movies were you watching?
“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Alien.” I watched so many horror movies, and it was really just about the classic tonal horrors and thrillers, where it wasn’t about the editing and cutting. It’s about: how do you take a static frame, and fill it with tension? That was our approach to have wider frames and static frames, it wasn’t about close-ups and jump scares. It was just building tone.
Would you ever do a horror movie?
I would if it was really smart. I actually am terrified of horror movies. I’m very sensitive. But for me, I get so scared of horror movies that if I know something is coming I’ll actually pause the movie and fast forward. Because—you know what it is? I am so used to jump scares, and I really don’t like jump scares, I feel they can often be so cheap and I see it coming and it still works on me. But they’re very triggering, and I think there are enough jump scares in our world right now, just reading the news everyday. You’re like “Oh my god! Again!” And you kind of anticipate it, and you’re like, “What else can you do?” It’s so stressful. So I don’t want jump scares in that way.
But I thought “A Quiet Place” was so brilliant, because on a technical level … I didn’t see it in a theater, I was too nervous to. Well, I saw it on a plane, and it still worked for me. But I can only imagine, from an artistic perspective, using sound and using everything to your advantage, like the sound design. That’s what I love—on “The Farewell,” we played with a lot of silence and a lot of negative space, and I really worked with the composer to create those juxtapositions of like, those awkward silences and when something comes in. The music often indicates interior feeling in this move, and it comes in really loud sometimes as opposed to quiet. So using the juxtaposition of other silence, and the loud interior grief that they’re not allowed to release, was something we played with.
We’ve got to talk about the constant use of negative space, straight lines, and meticulous blocking in your movie. How did it come about?
For this movie, it’s funny that it’s similar to “Touch,” I think that people can point to the obvious influence of Ozu, or Kore-eda. But for me, it was less about those influences and more just that for “The Farewell” the characters are performing. The actors are performing to be the characters, but the characters are performing for grandma. They’re performing a wedding.
And so I wanted to create this distinction of the interiority and what the performance was on the outside, and for the movie, especially when grandma’s around, they’re performing. So, these really static, wide frames have a theatricality to them that lends itself both to comedy and also the performative nature of this entire episode, this entire situation. We also chose a wide aspect ratio, which was a harder decision. But I wanted to be able to see the ceiling and the floor because the spaces are so interesting in China, and you see the floor with some lighting. But [Anna Franquesa Solano, director of photography] and I decided on the much wider aspect ratio that’s traditionally used for landscapes, because we wanted to create a landscape of faces. Being able to see everybody in one frame, allows us to see the family unit as one character, because they are a character. It’s like the collective versus the individual. And then we have the whole family that’s so filled in the frame that they’re often going out of frame, and it gives you the sense that they’re so full and there’s more happening beyond the frame. And then when you take them all away, and you put Billi alone in that frame and quiet, you really feel their absence and her isolation.
Another shot that stands out is the the slow-motion march they have toward the end, after the ruse is complete, so to speak. It’s such a striking image, but it also feels like a stylistic break.
I think it was sort of this interior moment, hyper realistic and was inspired by melodrama but also inspired by “The Godfather.” I think so often we go through our lives and we’re not in “The Godfather,” it’s like, we’re breaking up with someone that we’re dating, or someone in our life is dying—these smaller moments. But we all resonate with these bigger gangster films, and all kinds of bigger films, because the emotions are the same. We feel like the epic of our emotion toward our grandmother is the same that it might be for these bigger films. So that’s where the inspiration was coming from when they got together and pulled it off. There’s this epic feeling.