Lulu Wang did not deliberately set out to make a Chinese-American movie.
Yet so much about her second feature “The Farewell,” opening Friday in San Francisco, looks and sounds distinctly Chinese-American. It has a Chinese and Chinese-American cast and a script that’s largely in Mandarin. Most of it was filmed in Changchun, China.
“This is a film about my family,” the Beijing-born, Miami-raised writer-director says. “They happen to be Chinese, Chinese-American, but I don’t have to try hard to make it more Chinese or Chinese-American.”
“The Farewell” is closely based on Wang’s life and “an actual lie,” the movie’s tagline.
In it, a family stages a wedding as an excuse to visit their beloved grandma (Zhao Shuzhen), who is unknowingly dying of cancer. Her granddaughter, Billi — a fictionalized version of Wang played by Awkwafina (in her first dramatic lead role) — questions the ethics of her family’s decision to keep Nai Nai happy and not tell her about her fatal diagnosis.
The premise may seem absurd when stripped from its cultural context. In China, filial piety is expected at birth and that includes bearing the emotional burden of your family.
Though the story has a fake wedding, fabricated medical test results, and a very specific portrait of a family, critics find universal connections, Chinese-American or not.
There’s Billi’s humble life in New York, where she suffers the pangs of soaring rent prices in a bustling metropolis; her genuine relationship with Nai Nai and their mutual exchange of protective white lies; and conversations of East vs. West in the dining room, the one place the whole family has an excuse to sit together.
“So much of the movie is about love languages,” Wang says. “Food is a big part of how people in China and family communicate love, so it’s important because it’s authentic; it’s real. There’s nothing else that would bring the family together except a meal.”
Wang painstakingly took creative steps to follow what is real and faithful to her own experience.
During the translation process for the movie’s subtitles — particularly challenging for a highly nuanced language like Mandarin — Wang says she took careful measures to portray loyal reflections of her family, rather than contriving more relatable or more likeable characters.
“There’s been a lot of debate over ‘stupid child,’” Wang says, referring to the affectionate label Nai Nai calls Billi, a name Wang’s grandmother also calls her. “Some of my American producers were like, ‘Shouldn’t it be silly child cause isn’t that more playful? Stupid’s a little harsh.’ That’s where I can take creative license to decide: Do I want the harsher word or do I want the lighter word?”
Wang, whose next project is the science fiction film, “Children of the New World,” is apparently dedicated to authenticity. Rather than making an Asian “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” as prospective investors might have preferred, she held off until she had backers who supported her vision.
“I feel very much in control of what I can say yes and no to,” Wang says. “That’s the one thing I learned through ‘The Farewell’ — is that I can actually say no. Just because there’s an opportunity and there’s money on the table doesn’t mean I have to say yes and that’s very empowering to me.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo
Written and directed by: Lulu Wang
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes