Lulu Wang’s The Farewell Has Arrived

In Conversation with the American Filmmaker Choosing Specifics Over Stereotypes

  • Interview: Emily Yoshida
  • Photography: Andrew Jacobs

Lulu Wang and I are searching the Lower East Side for a coffee shop that may or may not exist. We’ve been wandering around the same blocks where she shot an early scene in her highly anticipated film The Farewell, and we’ve passed several cute-looking little tea shops and pastry shops, but none of them are that one. Wang remembers it had pink cups, it was near a subway station, and it was her go-to during the film’s Manhattan production days. She calls up her line producer, who dutifully picks up all these months later, and sends us to Delancey and Chrystie. We hike back there, only to find the place shuttered permanently: no coffee, no pink cups, no evidence that it was ever anything but an empty storefront.

“I did the same thing with my crew when we were scouting,” she remembers later once we situate ourselves at a (definitely real) brunch spot nearby. While on location in Changchun, China, she was desperate to find the actual hotel she stayed in during the improbable, emotional family reunion that she was now dramatizing on film. But when she went back to find it, Wang found herself leading her crew in circles. Finally, she realized, that hotel had been torn down, or rather, was in the process of being gutted. “There was still a sign—you could see parts of it. We walked through what was left of it.”

The Farewell follows Chinese-American twentysomething Billi (Awkwafina) who travels back to China with her parents when her beloved Nai Nai is diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Rather than inform her of her fate and mournfully make arrangements, the far-flung family keep the devastating prognosis a secret from her—as is often the custom in China. Instead, they hastily throw together a big wedding for Billi’s cousin, so that everyone has an excuse to come home and “say goodbye” to their matriarch. It’s a defense of ignorance—as the title of the 2016 This American Life episode in which Wang first told this story put it—as well as an exploration of the very un-Western idea that one’s life is not merely one’s own. And while The Farewell isn’t about memory alone, even its tiniest details brim over with them.

Lulu Wang wears Sies Marjan trousers.

But then, what is filmmaking if not trying to capture something as ephemeral as a memory? “I’ve always been a huge fan of Murakami,” Wang says. She recalls the author’s novel Dance, Dance, Dance, in which the narrator searches for the mysterious Dolphin Hotel, a place he’s dreamed about since spending one strange night there. “You're looking for these things, and you're not sure if you dreamed it, and it existed, or if you just imagined it, because it's also such a weird time in your life. That's kind of how China is.”

I spoke to Wang about her methods for transferring memory to film, the continually changing expectations for Asian-Americans in the industry, and why she’s determined to make sure she and her film stand on their own. “You hear about a movie that's—‘Asian, grandma, family,’—a certain kind of thing comes to mind,” she says. “It's not that I'm intentionally trying to fight stereotypes. But when you make the story specific, it can’t be a generalization. It becomes human.”

“You're looking for these things, and you're not sure if you dreamed it, and it existed, or if you just imagined it, because it's also such a weird time in your life. That's kind of how China is.”

Emily Yoshida

Lulu Wang

I wanted to talk about Sundance, because the film was such a hit there, but also because I think those early days exposed how limited the industry’s understanding of what an “Asian-American film” can be. I remember overhearing industry types in line—and the only comparison points people could come up with for its commercial potential were The Wedding Banquet or Crazy Rich Asians.

Sundance was crazy because everybody made offers right away, but the numbers were too low. It was really amazing when A24 stepped up with a higher number. But what was really crazy was after that, there was one streaming company that came back and offered more than double what A24 offered because someone there finally saw the movie and realized that it isn't defined by the language, the ethnicity, or any of that. So they came in with an insane number.

But it was a really tough 48 hours because numbers are very significant, in terms of what they represent. If a film like this sells for eight figures, it's really meaningful to the community and to the types of projects that can get made in the future.

Right. At the same time, I don't think that a male director is thinking, "If I don't get an $11 million offer for my film, the next white guy won't be able to make that much money."

Totally. Then it's like, well, what's more important? The number that it sells for, or marketing it correctly, getting it out in theaters, having a proper platform and product distribution, and then the potential of it having bigger box office success. Right? Because those numbers are also a risk, because if it makes less money it will be seen as a disappointment.

But that’s because the industry framework is so simplistic, it just becomes "well, will it be Crazy Rich Asians or not?"

I mean, The Farewell is like 75%, 80% in Mandarin, subtitled, so it's not Crazy Rich Asians. It's not a bunch of rich people doing really glamorous things, which has a certain appeal to mainstream audiences. This movie is Crazy Middle Class Asians. But you have to be all things to all people. I want to make the film as specific as possible, but obviously for the film to succeed, in many ways you have to also make it hit as widely as possible. I don't know if a lot of my favorite filmmakers, like Ruben Östlund and Yorgos Lanthimos—do they have that same pressure? Or do they have the luxury to just be an arthouse auteur director?

I was having this conversation with some people at A24 about labels and hyphenates. Like, who gets to be American, and who is forced to hyphenate it with something else? Do you embrace it, or do you reject it? I think labels can be important, because in a way, when you name a thing, it comes into existence and we can talk about it. But labels can also be really restricting and limiting. If I'm an Asian-American female director, then my films aren’t going to get compared to Mike Leigh's, for example.

I love that Mike Leigh is your example.

He was a big influence for me, because of the way he works with ensembles. The way that he does comedy is so specific, and dark, and dry. I wish that I had the rehearsal schedules he did because of what he's able to accomplish, the intimacy that we feel with the families that he shoots. Or Ruben Östlund, and the way that he does comedy.

As a filmmaker, these are the boxes I'm trying to break out of. Like, why can't I do a family drama using thriller/horror camera techniques? Because so much of The Farewell was about the unspoken thing, the elephant in the room, the monster in the room, the secret, the lie. Everybody's putting on a performance for Grandma—“Everything’s fine. We're all happy.” But the audience has to feel as if the thing that is not being said can come out at any moment. The best way to create that kind of tense atmosphere is if you reference horror and thriller.

“Who gets to be American, and who is forced to hyphenate it with something else?”

Did you have any specific horror films you looked at for inspiration?

Rosemary's Baby is one. A little bit of Hitchcock. My DP Anna Franquesa, and I talked about this a lot. When you don't have a lot of camera movement, and then you do move the camera, you really feel it. So that push in on Nai Nai, for example, when she's just sitting at the table—that’s how it felt in the moment. My family is eating dinner, and my grandma's sitting right there. The horror that I feel inside is that camera slow push in, like she is going to look at me and know what I know at any minute. But that’s also where the comedy comes from.

The color palette stayed in my memory for months after I first saw it. It’s both very kitchen sink Mike Leigh, but with this softness to it, like the feeling of memory.

The first thing I really wanted to capture in the film was the fluorescent lighting in China. I was thinking a lot about what light means in a country like China that has historically not had money. If you don’t have money you have candlelight, which looks like the chiaroscuro pools of warm tungsten light, that we romanticize in Western culture. In China, they don't romanticize that as much, because that stands for poverty. When you have money, you want to flatten and flood the room with as much light as possible. My grandma would always walk into a room and be like, "Why is it so dark in here?"

At the same time, I didn't want to do fluorescence the way that it's been done in a hip, cool way like a lot of Hong Kong cinema. The challenge was to figure out how to do fluorescent lighting, but still make sure that people felt warm. That was a big part of the feeling of the film that I wanted to capture—pastels are a really big thing in China, and that desaturated lighter look. Once we got to the wedding, we let the colors pop a lot more. But otherwise we kept it in the pastel palette you often see in China.

I think that there's a lot of pastels because there's a naivete to the culture; they really embrace innocence. My grandma has that poster of that cute baby in her bathroom, and to her it's just cute. There's no irony to it at all. I love her house, and because their lives have been so hard, they're not looking for edginess in their home.

I love that baby poster. The specificity of art direction like that gives the film so much depth. Did you have a favorite piece of real-life set decor?

There's a scene that's a conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, and it's white wall behind them. The only thing that was really in the frame on the wall was one picture for both of them. So behind Awkwafina's side is a picture of my real grandmother and grandfather when they were in the army, when they were young. Then on Nai Nai's side is a picture of my dad and uncle when they were kids. That's also real.

We shot at my actual grandfather's grave site. We wanted to put a photo there because we saw some of the other graves had photos, but we didn’t. So the art department printed a photo of my grandfather, and laminated it, and put it on the gravestone. Every time I see the movie, I'll notice these little things. Stuff like that is really meaningful.

Emily Yoshida is a writer and filmmaker, and cohosts the podcast Night Call. She lives in New York City.

  • Interview: Emily Yoshida
  • Photography: Andrew Jacobs
  • Styling: Leah Henken
  • Hair: Marco Santini / Tracey
  • Makeup: Carolina Dali / The Wall Group
  • Date: July 11, 2019