In 'The Farewell,' The Bad News Bearers Keep A Secret

Jul 13, 2019
Originally published on July 14, 2019 4:09 pm

The Farewell is a movie with a wedding at the center — but the wedding isn't really the story.

The new film stars the rapper and actress Awkwafina as Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi, who travels with her family from the United States to China ostensibly to celebrate the marriage of her cousin. Really, it's to say goodbye to Nai Nai, her beloved grandmother. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer — and her family decides not to tell her.

To many Americans, the premise probably sounds ridiculous or even cruel — but is it? That's one of the questions posed by writer and director Lulu Wang, whose second feature film is surprisingly funny for one about terminal cancer. The Farewell is based on her own true story — or "based on an actual lie," as the film bills it — a story she first told to This American Life.

"I felt pretty upset about it [at the time it happened]," Wang says in an interview. "And it was also just so confusing because I was sad, but then I had to kick into action to decide whether I was going to support this plan or not. And regardless of all of that, I wanted to see my grandmother. But then if I went to go see her under this ruse of a wedding, what if I couldn't hold my emotions in? And that was something that my mother warned me about, was that I am pretty transparent about how I feel oftentimes, and she was worried that I would give away the secret."


Interview Highlights

On why withholding such bad news is a common practice in China

I think it's very, very common. I didn't learn that until after ... when I started telling the story and started doing research. I had done a podcast for This American Life, so when that came out, a lot of people came up to me saying, "Oh my God, I thought my family was crazy because they did this!" And it wasn't just Asian families, even — it was people from all over the world.

And I think that these older cultures do it because there's a mind-body connection that they believe in — that the spirit really affects the physical. And in more practical terms, my great aunt, who plays herself in the movie actually, said, "You know, if you tell somebody bad news, then they're going to get depressed; they're not going to eat; they stop sleeping. And when you don't sleep, when you don't eat, that affects your health." So you really can, in a very literal way, scare somebody to death.

And so there's even the consideration that they have, which is when there's bad news, you should never tell a person at night, because they're not going to be able to process it in the dark, when there's no sunlight and they can't sleep. So the best thing to do, really, is to tell them first thing in the morning so that they have the entire day to process it. And I just felt like: Wow, that actually really makes sense. I don't know that I've ever considered that. I don't know that we live in a culture that gives that much thought to how to deliver bad news.

On casting her actual great aunt ("Little Nai Nai") to play herself

It was amazing — I've always thought she is just so wonderful. She has an amazing face that's filled with so much joy. She is so lighthearted, and no matter what burden she's carrying, she never wants to give that to anyone else in the family. She'll carry it herself. And it's been a tremendous burden because normally in China, it's the kids that take care of her mother. But because my Nai Nai, both of her sons live abroad, Little Nai Nai — [who] is the youngest of the family — has been carrying the burden of caring for her older sister.

So I wanted to put her in the movie as a way to also just ground the entire movie in reality. She was the one who came up with the decision to lie to Nai Nai. And having her there also allowed the actors to ask questions. You know, how did this happen in real life? Am I doing a good job? Am I representing your relatives correctly? ...

She was actually very respectful of my position as a director, because she didn't want to do the movie at first. She would always be very self-deprecating, in a funny way. But she would say, "Ugh, my fat face, I don't want to ruin your movie. Why would you do that?"

On this film coming out at a time when American politicians are identifying China as a threat

I mean, it's something that people talk about for sure, and politics often enter dinner conversations, as much as I try to avoid them. And I'll say this — that some of my family members, especially the ones who live in America, don't necessarily disagree with that political position. But politics have to be separated from the individual, from the personal. My parents had their own reasons for leaving China, and believed very much that I would have a better life here. And I feel very strongly that they did the right thing. I don't think that I would have been a filmmaker if I had stayed.

But of course, it's impossible to know that. And one of the things I explore in the film, too, is that we tell ourselves stories to justify our own choices. So whatever decision you make, you're going to be able to find stories or signs to say "I did the right thing," because we have to believe we did the right thing in order to survive.

But you know, for me the film is really about the effects on family and personal life, right, regardless of the politics, regardless of nationalism/how you identify. At the end of the day, this is still a family, and everyone feels the pain of the loss of the things that you lose when you immigrate, and the connections that you lose, and all of the gaps that happen — whether it's generational gap, cultural gap, that's just sort of the reality.

On what her parents think of the movie

My parents saw the film. They've seen it three times now. The first time they saw it was at Sundance [Film Festival] ...

I think you'd have to ask them — maybe they'll be more honest if other people asked. But somebody in the audience at Sundance said, "What did you think, mom and dad?" And my dad said, "It's pretty good!" And everybody laughed. And my mother is — actually, she is very honest. And I think she's very proud of me — I'm sure that she would have approached the film very differently, but that's also the reality ... she has a different perspective of China, a different perspective of America. And the story is not told from her point of view.

But at the end of the day, I think that they're really, really proud. Especially because when my father first read the script, he said — I wanted to make sure that they were aware of what I was putting into the film, and that they were OK with it — and he said, "Yeah, this is all very authentic, very accurate, but why would anybody care?" You know, in some ways he thought I'd dramatize things more, and fictionalize it to make it more exciting. I mean, he watches Die Hard and those types of movies. ... He didn't understand why these (to him) very mundane details of our family life would be interesting to anybody. And that's been the most wonderful thing, is to show him, to show Little Nai Nai, that our stories deserve to be on a big screen — and that people do care.

Eliza Dennis and Natalie Friedman Winston produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When we think about stories with a wedding at the center, we generally think about whether the couple getting hitched is the right one, whether the parents approve, maybe whether the bridesmaids or the wedding planners have something going on. But what if the wedding isn't really the story? What if the wedding is actually a cover-up for a family secret? That's the premise of the new film "The Farewell," starring the rapper and actress Awkwafina as Billi, who travels with her family from the U.S. to China, ostensibly to celebrate the marriage of her cousin but really to say goodbye to her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai.

Nai Nai has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, but the family decides not to tell her, which to most Americans probably sounds ridiculous - even cruel. But is it? That's one of the questions writer and director Lulu Wang is asking in her second feature, which is surprisingly funny for a film about terminal cancer and won rave reviews at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. And Lulu Wang is joining us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LULU WANG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And congratulations on everything. I know it's been a whirlwind.

WANG: Thank you. Yeah.

MARTIN: So you tell us in the opening credits that this movie is, quote, "based on an actual lie." And this actually happened to you. Your family really did choose to not tell your grandmother about her cancer diagnosis. So before we get into the movie, can I just ask you, do you remember how you felt about that at the time?

WANG: Yeah. I felt pretty upset about it. I mean, it was - and it was also just so confusing because I was sad, but then I had to kind of kick into action to decide whether I was going to support this plan or not. And regardless of all of that, I wanted to see my grandmother. But then if I went to go see her under this ruse of a wedding, what if I couldn't hold my emotions in? And that was something my mother warned me about - was that, you know, I am pretty transparent about how I feel oftentimes. And she was worried that I would give away the secret.

MARTIN: One of the things that this film does so beautifully - not just to capture the - just how complicated those feelings can be, but it captures so beautifully what it's like to leave a place and then to realize that leaving changes you. I just want to play a scene from the film where Billi's parents are trying to help her understand why they've decided not to tell their beloved family member that she's as sick as she is. And I'll just play that clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FAREWELL")

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) I don't understand. She doesn't have a lot of time left. She should know, right?

TZI MA: (As Haiyan) There's nothing they can do, so everyone decided it's better not to tell her.

AWKWAFINA: (As Billi) Why is that better?

DIANA LIN: (As Jian) Chinese people have a saying. When people get cancer, they die. It's not the cancer that kills them - it's the fear.

MARTIN: You know, the movie makes it seem like this is a common practice within Chinese families. I mean, the doctor even helps the family lie. And one of the family members, the dad, makes the point that, you know what? This wouldn't even be allowed in America. Can you just explain for people, like, why this is considered OK and why this is a common practice - if it indeed is a common practice.

WANG: Yeah, I think it's very, very common. I didn't learn that until after, when I started doing the story - when I started telling this story and started doing research. And, you know, I had done a podcast for "This American Life," so when that came out, a lot of people came up to me saying, oh, my god. I thought my family was crazy because they did this. And it wasn't just Asian families, even - it was that people from all over the world.

And I think that these older cultures do it because there's a mind-body connection that they believe in - that the spirit really affects the physical. And, in more practical terms, my great aunt - who plays herself in the movie, actually - said, you know, if you tell somebody bad news, then they're going to get depressed. They're not going to eat. They stop sleeping. And when you don't sleep, when you don't eat, that, you know, affects your health. So you really can in a very literal way scare somebody to death.

MARTIN: What was it like? You mentioned that your actual grandmother's little sister, your actual great aunt, affectionately called Little Nai Nai in the film, actually plays herself in the film. What was that like?

WANG: It was amazing. I've always thought she is just so wonderful. She has an amazing face that's filled with so much joy. She is so light-hearted, and no matter what burden she's carrying, she never wants to give that to anyone else in the family. She'll carry it herself. And it's been a tremendous burden because normally in China, it's the kids that take care of their mother. But because my Nai Nai, both of her sons live abroad, Little Nai Nai, as the youngest of the family, has been carrying this burden of caring for her older sister.

And so I wanted to put her in the movie as a way to also just ground the entire movie in reality. She was the one who first came up with the decision to lie to Nai Nai. And having her there also allowed the actors to ask questions - you know, how did this happen in real life? Am I doing a good job? Am I representing your relatives correctly?

MARTIN: So did you really call her Little Nai Nai? What is it? How do you refer to her?

WANG: In Chinese, it's (speaking Chinese), which means little aunt grandma.

MARTIN: So wouldn't you have to tell her, like, do this, do that? I mean, you can't boss her, right?

WANG: You know, she was actually very respectful of my position as a director because she didn't want to do the movie at first. She would always be very self-deprecating in a funny way. But she would say, oh, my fat face - I don't want to ruin your movie. Why would you do that?

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that's interesting about the film is it comes out at a time when there's a political campaign going on in the United States, a presidential campaign which has not really ended, actually, over the last two years. And it's at a time when a lot of American politicians are identifying China as a very grave threat to the United States. And just wondering how you kind of feel, what you - you know, obviously, that's a political conversation. It's about all kinds of big, geopolitical themes, and your film is about, you know, a family.

But it does raise this question about who's getting the better deal right now. It does. It raises these questions of is it better to stay, or is it better to go? And I just wondered if you have some thoughts about that. Like, first of all, I guess, is this a conversation that Chinese families are having with themselves? Is it better to stay, or is it better to go? And who's getting the better deal?

WANG: Absolutely. I mean, it's something that people talk about for sure, and politics often enter dinner conversations, as much as I try to avoid them. And, you know, I'll say this - that some of my family members, especially the ones who live in America, don't necessarily disagree with that political position. But politics have to be separated from the individual, from the personal. You know, for me, the film is really about the effects on family and personal life, right, regardless of the politics, regardless of nationalism, how you identify.

At the end of the day, this is still a family, and everyone feels the pain of the loss of the things that you lose when you emigrate and the connections that you lose and all of the gaps that happen - like, whether it's generational gap, cultural gap. That's just sort of the reality.

MARTIN: Has your family had a chance to see the film?

WANG: My parents saw the film. They've seen it three times now. The first time they saw it was at Sundance. And somebody in the audience said, what'd you think, mom and dad? And my dad said, it's pretty good.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WANG: And everybody laughed. And, you know, my mother is - actually, she is very honest, and I think she's very proud of me. I'm sure that she would have approached the film very differently. But that's also the reality. As I was saying earlier, she has a different perspective of China, a different perspective of America.

But at the end of the day, I think that they're really, really proud, especially because when my father first read the script, he said - I wanted to make sure that they were aware of what I was putting into the film and that they were OK with it. And he said, yeah, this is all very authentic, very accurate. But why would anybody care? You know, in some ways, he thought I would dramatize things more and fictionalize it to make it more exciting. I mean, he watches "Die Hard" and those types of movies.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

WANG: But he didn't understand why these to him very mundane details of our family life would be interesting to anybody. And that's been the most wonderful thing - is to show him, to show Little Nai Nai, that our stories deserve to be on a big screen, and that people do care.

MARTIN: That is Lulu Wang. She's the writer and director of the new movie "The Farewell."

Lulu, thanks so much for talking with us, and congratulations.

WANG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.