Asian family dinners can be either amazing, awkward, or usually a pleasant combination of both. If you’ve had your fair share of meals with your extended family, you’ll know there may be drama between certain family members, tight bonds between others, and things better left unsaid, which may get a tad uncomfortable at times.
Writer and director Lulu Wang leans into that discomfort and unpacks generations of familial duty, values, and expectations in her latest film, The Farewell.
Based on an actual lie from Wang’s real life, The Farewell stars Awkwafina who plays Billi, a character based on Wang, a Chinese-born, American-raised millennial, who finds out her beloved grandmother in China has been given weeks to live. Everyone in the family knows — except Nai Nai herself. Cue complicated family dynamics and hilarity.
Cold Tea Collective had the chance to watch the Los Angeles premiere of the film at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, followed by a panel event with Lulu Wang, Awkwafina, and Tzi Ma.
THIS (ASIAN) AMERICAN LIFE
The Farewell is Wang’s second feature. After an interview on This American Life, Wang was inspired by how her interviewers listened to her story with an investigative attitude and curiosity.
“They dug deep into the specificity in terms of how it looked, smelled, and what it felt like to create that particular feeling of wanting to speak, but being unable to speak,” Wang described.
After the interview aired, the film went to a bidding war of producers wanting to make it.
“I always knew that humour would be a big part of this story. So many producers wanted to make it a comedy and wanted to make it ‘My Big Fat Chinese Wedding.’” But it wasn’t the movie she wanted to make.
Wang had to answer to questions such as why there were many food scenes. “They thought it was repetitive, but I said no because that’s literally what happens — we eat all the time.”
Wang then showed them locations and demonstrated the differing experiences in eating a meal at home versus at a banquet.
The film is a reflection of Wang’s life experience. When her producers suggested that the “tiger mom” character give a hug or an “I love you” to combat a potential stereotype, she argued, “I’m portraying my actual mom, don’t tell me I’m portraying a stereotype. If you can make that happen in my real life, I’ll put it in the movie.”
She introduced herself to the world with her song “My Vag.” She made our stomachs hurt with laughter wearing a blonde wig. And she was the first Asian American woman to host SNL since Lucy Liu in 18 years.
Awkwafina (real name Nora Tong) steps back from the comedy for her dramatic debut as the star in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell.
Before this project came about, Awkwafina was approached with roles like “talking uterus,” the Queens native joked. She never expected a role like this to come about. When she got the call from her agent, she knew she had to do it because she herself was raised by her grandmother and was drawn to how the story centred around the family matriarch.
“As an Asian American, you don’t see stories you can really resonate with. I told Lulu I didn’t think I could cry — and then I was crying during rehearsal in the car. It was too real.”
Filmed in the neighbourhood Wang’s grandmother actually lived in, Awkwafina describes the time when Wang’s grandmother came to set.
Spoiler: Nai Nai is still alive! (Although she still doesn’t know about her diagnosis … six years later).
“Her real grandmother would hang out with us, give us snacks, and then I’d come off from a crying scene and [she’d] ask why I was crying. I just couldn’t explain it to her. It was too weird that she’d ask me that,” the star recalls.
The film is 80% in Mandarin, with subtitles, and Awkwafina’s command of the language wasn’t initially there. “I wanted the part so bad that I stalked an international student in Queens and asked her to do Mandarin drills with me.”
True To Life
The entire production team knew it was a rarity to be able to play characters that were still very much alive and real to draw inspiration from.
“We were blessed because we got to spend a lot of time with the family. What you see on screen about dad is just the surface — he’s truly an extraordinary man. All I needed to do was listen,” described the legendary Chinese actor, Tzi Ma.
Not only was Wang’s very-much-still-alive grandmother on set, but Nai Nai’s younger sister, endearingly named “Little Na Nai” actually played herself. However, Wang notes it was not without challenges.
“She’s not a professional actor. We did a lot of auditions where she wasn’t very good, but then when it came to actually shooting real scenes such as the hospital scene where she finds out Nai Nai’s diagnosis, she was actually crying because she was reliving the situation. We were worried it was unethical to do this. We sat her down to remind her she couldn’t do it for me.”
Little Nai Nai’s response? “It’s therapy — what other chance do I have to talk about this and do this?”
Family, It’s Complicated
This film got us in our feelings; there were several layers of filial piety to peel back. Wang tells the story beautifully, especially when direct dialogue around emotional experiences can be difficult to bring forth in Asian culture both on-screen and in life.
When asked what her parents thought of the film, Wang’s parents said it was “pretty good.” As if parental pressure and approval weren’t bad enough, Wang’s mother is a former cultural and film critic in China.
The film was also an opportunity for her parents to see this life event through her eyes. “They tried to do what they thought was right, but emotionally we never talked about certain things and seeing the film made them recognize that,” Wang explained.
Asian families are complex. Our parents take care of us when we’re young, hoping to shield us from the potential harms and dangers of the world. When we grow up, we do the same for them. We just want our loved ones to be protected, happy, and safe. This film is a stellar look at that experience brought to life in all it’s messy, heart-tugging glory.
Be sure to check out The Farewell in theatres on July 12th and support another #GoldOpen. The Canadian release date is July 19th.
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