Here’s what kept going through my mind while watching “The Farewell,” which hits theaters Friday: that I forgot to call my grandmother, who turned 94 in June, for her birthday. I’d sent her a card for Mother’s Day a couple weeks before, which likely arrived late; mail always takes a while to make it to Hawaii. Now that I’m on the East Coast, the islands are far enough that she sometimes feels worlds away.
If Hawaii feels far, then much of “The Farewell” feels even farther. The film, written and directed by Lulu Wang, opens with a scene in a hospital in Changchun, China. Its opening credits also make a promise: The film is based on “an actual lie.”
That lie was first made public in a 2016 “This American Life” episode. Several years ago, Wang’s grandmother, whom she calls Nai Nai, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Doctors said she had three months to live, but the rest of the family decided to keep the truth from Nai Nai — a practice relatively common throughout Asia, where believing in one’s own good health is thought to lead to a longer life. Instead, the family fabricated a wedding to get everyone — Wang’s aunts and uncles and cousins, plus her own parents, who immigrated to the United States when Wang was 6 — back together in China.
In “The Farewell,” Billi, played by rising star Awkwafina, acts as a stand-in for Wang. We watch as Billi travels back to Changchun to partake in the lie — a deception, we discover, that’s morally very difficult for her. “Don’t you think we should tell Nai Nai?” Billi asks an aunt. “What if she wants to say goodbye?”
Wang had been thinking about how the experience would make for a great film, even as she was living through it. When the movie premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it was met with rave reviews and a bidding war. And at its four-theater opening last weekend, it pulled in the largest per-theater box office average so far this year.
But it wasn’t until recently, when I sat down with Wang to discuss “The Farewell,” that I realized just how true the finished product was to her own life.
After all, Wang brought the cast and crew to Changchun — the city where her family had actually congregated years earlier — to shoot the film. And Wang’s actual great-aunt, Hong Lu, plays herself in the movie, alongside her actual dog, who can sing on command. Most importantly, Wang had actually wrestled with the morality of lying to her grandmother, as well as with questions of her own identity, just as Billi does in the movie.
Although Wang doesn’t always make movies that are autobiographical — her first feature film, 2014’s “Posthumous,” is a romantic comedy starring Brit Marling — through them, she always seeks to explore personal questions she’s pondering.
“When I go into a film, I don’t know what the answer is,” she says.
At first, I thought the film felt particularly relatable because my maternal grandmother comes from a family of Japanese coffee farmers. In other words, the cultural markers on display didn’t seem so foreign to me: Nai Nai calling Billi a “stupid child” as a term of endearment, family members gathering around foods unnameable to a white audience.
But that didn’t explain everything. Even when the details differed — the details will always differ, whether your family is Asian or American or white or black — “The Farewell” still resonated. And that’s because so many of us have relationships reminiscent of the one anchoring the film.
Wang had always been especially close with her paternal grandmother, she says. Nai Nai helped raise Wang when she was growing up in China, and then visited the United States for months at a time once her family moved. Long after Nai Nai stopped making those trips, she’d remind Wang of their pillow fights from the old days.
I used to visit my grandmother every summer, too. My parents, brother and I would cram into her little house, which was tucked into the Big Island’s lush hills. She’d make us fried kinako mochi and take us out to her garden to pluck the ripest papaya from the tree. And every summer, without fail, she’d ask me to sleep in her bed with her; my grandfather passed away before I was born. I’d fall asleep to the chorus of her snores and the croaking of frogs outside her window.
Awkwafina’s own grandmother also helped raise her, so maybe it’s no surprise that Awkwafina’s on-screen relationship with Shuzhen Zhao, the actress who plays Nai Nai, feels so effortless. Their chemistry was immediate, Wang says: The very first scene of the movie they shot also happened to be one of the most intimate. In it, Nai Nai takes Billi outside to practice her morning exercises. She demonstrates, yelling, “Ha, ha,” and Billi follows — clumsily, laughing. There’s such dynamism between Zhao and Awkwafina, it’s hard to believe one didn’t raise the other.
Studio executives, though, weren’t convinced that relationships like these were made for the big screen. Many told Wang that she needed to create a romantic relationship for Billi to make the movie salable. Wang refused. The most interesting thing about the character, Wang says, wasn’t who she was or wasn’t dating.
So Wang held out to make the movie she envisioned; she fought “to tell the story in an authentic way.” At the time, Wang says, she was learning how to be strong and self-sufficient from the women in her life, and from her grandmother specifically. Nai Nai — who joined the People’s Liberation Army at 14 because she didn’t want to be arranged to be married — had always lived her life as a “super tiny” but “very, very tough” woman, Wang says, and those were traits that Wang sought to emulate.
But in creating the character of Billi, Wang told Awkwafina that the goal wasn’t to imitate reality. Instead, the duo decided that Billi was a vessel for the experience and for the audience. “It wasn’t about imitating my behaviors or how I spoke,” Wang explains. “It was more about being emotionally present in the emotional journey Billi goes on.”
While much of emotional weight of the film lies in familial relationships, Billi indeed has weighty moments of self-reflection of her own. One comes toward the end of the film, in which she finally breaks down in front of the rest of her family about what being back in China, and lying to Nai Nai, means to her. Wang says that, in finding an “emotional low” for Billi in the film, she began working through her own sense of identity: of having grown up in China but moving to the States, of how that’s a “rift you can never mend.”
Writing that scene was incredibly cathartic, Wang says, because there’d never been space for her to say those words to her own family: “I never vocalized that was how I felt. … So it’s very strange to watch an actor deliver words that feel so true me, but that I have never myself said.”
It must’ve been surreal, and cathartic, for the rest of Wang’s family to see their experiences translated into a film; her parents watched the film premiere at Sundance, and her great-aunt, who goes by Little Nai Nai in the film, recently attended a screening in New York City.
Given the film’s critical reception, it has also entered into an important conversation about diversity in Hollywood. The cast is Chinese, and they speak Mandarin for a majority of the film.
But the film, while an undeniable step forward in terms of on-screen representation, is more radical because of who was behind the script and the camera. It exists because Wang is telling her story, on her terms. Wang says that she doesn’t go through her life as “the other,” so she didn’t set out to make a movie as the other, either. “I’m going to make a film as if I am the mainstream, as if I own the story and you will all own it, too,” she says.
“I read something about diversity being the ‘hot flavor,’” Wang continues.
What Wang serves up ultimately feels revelatory because it is different. How often have you watched a movie that centers on the relationship between a granddaughter and a grandmother? That’s one on-screen relationship I hadn’t seen yet — at least not like this.
It’s why I kept coming back to my own grandmother as I watched Wang’s film. I haven’t seen her in more than a year, during which time my family moved her into an assisted-living home. Hawaii has been on all our minds lately, because my brother is getting married there in just two months, down the road from my grandmother’s now-sold house. The whole family will be together again; we will all get to see her.
As I watched Nai Nai try to hide her coughing and tiredness from her family in “The Farewell,” I thought of how my grandmother’s decline had seemed so sudden, so quick. And when a surprise comes at the end of the film — I won’t spoil it for you here — I found myself rooting for everyone: Nai Nai, Billi, Zhao, Awkwafina, Wang, my grandmother, me.
“We all want things that are going to reflect our own life, things that are going to give us some direction, some beauty, some reflection,” Wang says as we’re wrapping up our interview.
When I finally do call my grandmother after watching “The Farewell,” her laugh lighting up the other end of the line, those words couldn’t ring truer.