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

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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.

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Now we'd like to take a few minutes to remember an automotive icon. This week, the last Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. The car, beloved as it has become, actually has a complicated history. The original idea was formulated by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, who wanted a people's car, a Volkswagen. But the car wasn't actually produced for civilians until the late 1940s, when the victorious Allies wanted to get Germany's economy going again. Multiple rebrands later, a hipster favorite was born.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's ugly, but it gets you there.

MARTIN: With all the other small car options on the market now, we wondered if the quirky bug will be missed. So we asked you to tell us your favorite Beetle memories, and you did. More than 900 people wrote us, including Kristine Smith. She got a robin's-egg-blue Beetle convertible when she was 16.

KRISTINE SMITH: It really felt like a mascot or like a family pet to me. So it was a really hard decision and when I sold the car because I did feel like I was giving my dog away or something.

MARTIN: A lot of you wanted to tell us about the Beetle's durability or the lack thereof. We're still wondering why so many of you had to use an ice scraper on the inside of the windshield. And then, there was this other thing. Robert Rillo remembers driving to a concert one summer with his sister and her friend and having to wait hours in the Oklahoma heat to park.

ROBERT RILLO: And as we were sitting there, he goes, you know, man, it sure is getting hot in here. And we thought, yeah, it's just hot. Then a few seconds later, he's like it's getting really hot in here. And then, a second or two later, he jumped up, and smoke was kind of coming out from underneath the seat.

MARTIN: The battery was on fire. They managed to put out the fire, go to the concert and see Huey Lewis and the News. But they missed the opener, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

RILLO: That was tragic (laughter).

MARTIN: We were so sorry to hear that. So here you go, Robert. This one's for you.


STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN: (Singing) She my sweet little thing. She my pride and joy.

MARTIN: But everybody who wrote us forgave the Beetle's quirks. Kelly Moors certainly did. She says that in 1976, quote, "I was 16. My boyfriend was 17. He was handsome and sweet and drove a VW Beetle. I loved them both. He taught me to drive it, stick shift and all. He also taught me to kiss in it. It was a lovely summer." You go, Kelly. And she was not the only one to find love.

JESSICA BRAY: He had a Beetle with a beard, and I called him the guy - beard with a Beetle.

MARTIN: That's Jessica Bray. She met a guy when she was the chair of a local car show in Kentucky.

BRAY: By the end of the show, we ended up exchanging numbers. We went out to dinner. And six months later, he asked me to be his wife.


BRAY: We've got a bus. We've got a single-cab truck that we call tetanus because it is all rusted out.

MARTIN: Herbie the Love Bug would be so proud. Those are just a few of the hundreds of memories you sent us of a Volkswagen Beetle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.