Lulu Wang Talks Food, Family and “The Farewell”

L to R: “Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen.” Courtesy of Big Beach.

Chinese-American filmmaker Lulu Wang’s latest movie, “The Farewell,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2019 and quickly became a critic favorite, with news outlets naming it the best film of the festival. “The Farewell,” which hits theaters in July, draws from Wang’s own life and follows a young woman on a visit to China to see her ailing grandmother.

The Emory Wheel got the chance to discuss Wang’s experiences creating her sophomore feature in an interview. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Saru Garg, The Emory Wheel: You use used food a lot in the film. A lot of major conversations unfold over food, and it seems the characters are showing each other affection by feeding one another. What influenced that choice?

Lulu Wang: Reality! You know, I think that it’s funny because during the script process somebody who was not Asian, said “Gosh, there’s a lot of food in the script, I feel like it’s repetitive,” and I was like, “Exactly!” And they were like, “No, no, no, I mean in the story, or for the script — don’t you want to maybe do something else?” But I feel like the repetition is also kind of the point. There’s always food in a lot of Asian movies because that’s the culture and people are used to that. But I didn’t want to show food in a way to be food porn. I wanted it to be an integrated part of a scene. Or, if we see any food specifically, it was used as a source of tension, as a way to pressure Billi (Awkwafina), because there is so much pressure to eat, eat, eat, and it’s the way that Grandma is happiest. But when you’re sad, you cannot eat — you literally cannot stomach anything. I wanted to play with that juxtaposition as tension.

TEW: How were your experiences directing this film different from your experiences on your first one?

LW: I didn’t go to film school, so I wasn’t even sure if and how I would be able to make a movie. In many ways, I approached the film like a producer. I think I just wanted it to be good, and I wanted to make a good movie. I think you always want to make a good movie, but I think with this film I wanted to take more risks as a director. I think I saw what I was able to do in a more conventional genre. I was like, well, how do I make romantic comedy the kind of romantic comedy that I miss and that I love from the ’50s especially, and early ’90s, but still do it, put my own voice into it? Whereas, with this film, because I wasn’t tied to any specific genre, I wanted to really break conventions of genre and, at every turn, try to do something that was unexpected with my camerawork, or with framing or whatever it might be.

TEW: Were there any filmmakers or films in particular that you looked to for inspiration when you were making this film?

LW: Yeah, Mike Leigh is a huge inspiration. Ruben Östlund as well. I love a lot of Scandinavian New Wave directors, just because I think there’s such a dark sense of humor. And I wonder if it has to do with cold weather, too, because my film is set in northern China, where they’re close to Russia. It’s very cold, and there’s something about the rowdiness of the family, the amount of love and noise. At the same time, there’s this dark comedy, and I really wanted to capture that. I looked at a lot of these Northern European directors, too. I love that kind of awkward humor.

TEW: What was it like to film a story that you have such a personal connection to, as opposed to your first feature, which was not necessarily tied to reality?

LW: It was a really great journey because I was able to bring producers in on a world that previously felt separate from the rest of my life. I also had more authority because I lived it and because it is based on real places and real people. There were various details that I was able to fight for simply because I knew about that. In many ways, it was more challenging because you can’t capture everything about each character. I’m making a film where I have to cast somebody to play my mom and someone to play my dad, and you’re picking and choosing which parts of them. I don’t want to offend them, I always want to honor them, so there’s all of these things, considerations, that are influencing my decision-making which are not necessarily specific to my creative choices as a director, You just have to be thoughtful in the representation. But it was also easier when it came to very specific decisions about what kind of cup to use, or what kind of apartment we wanted.. Just making cinematic choices but always trying to maintain authenticity.

TEW: What do you hope that audiences, especially people who aren’t acquainted with Chinese culture, or who are far removed from an immigrant status, take away from a film like “The Farewell”?

LW: Like people who are not immigrants or not first-generation? Well, I think that it’s really a story about family, and I think everyone, no matter what your family looks like, can relate to the fact that families are awkward. You all have different perspectives and points of views. How you disagree with your family but still love them is something that anybody can relate to. The film is also about joy, it’s about grief, but it’s also about grace. We’re living in such a polarized time, and I’m sure that, within any family, immigrant or not, there’s going to be discrepancies in the way people view politics, specific agendas. It’s not a film about how you change somebody’s mind, it’s about acceptance and doing so with grace.

TEW: The film is essentially autobiographical, but were there any instances when you felt that you had to diverge from reality or make a choice that was a little more fictional?

LW: Yeah, there are certain plot points, of course, that are taken from reality but stretched a little. My grandma did go to the hospital, but not while I was in town, so there’s definitely little things like that. There’s this saying that “fiction is truer than fact.” Often, for me, it was about capturing the truth as opposed to capturing facts, and I think that even the fictionalization of certain plot points helped to get to the truth of the movie better.

TEW: You talked about how you want to honor your family and how you have to be thoughtful behind your choices. Has your family seen the film? What did they think about it?

LW: Well, my parents saw the film. They saw it for the first time at Sundance, and I think that they love it? They’re coming again tonight because they live in Atlanta, and they’re bringing all their friends, so I’m assuming that they’re not totally embarrassed and ashamed. I think they’re really proud and, of course, my mom did say after the movie to my brother and my boyfriend, who were both there, “I’m not like that woman, I’m not mean like that.” And my boyfriend was like, “No, no, no, you’re so sweet, you’re nothing like that woman. But in movies, you have to sometimes exaggerate for the drama.” And my brother was like, “No, she’s exactly like that. Mom, what are you talking about? You’re exactly like that, you literally said those things to me.” And I thought that was really funny.