Late in Lulu Wang’s latest feature, The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina) steps up to deliver a speech at a wedding. She apologizes, “My Chinese isn’t great,” as she’s done out of insecurity a number of times. “It’s great! Go on!” yells someone in the wedding party, and so she does. But the feeling of distance from one’s own family remains. That distance is familiar to anyone who’s moved away from their native country, often taking the form of a sense of displacement in first generation immigrants trying to exist between two worlds and two languages. In Billi’s case, it’s navigating Mandarin as a bilingual person while having lived in a country that prioritizes English. Much of The Farewell trades in exploring the experiences of a bilingual immigrant returning home, so much so that Lulu Wang’s zine for A24 — a print magazine that individual filmmakers and actors, including Greta Gerwig, John Early, Mike Mills, and Claire Denis, curates for the distributor, timed to the release of their new films — is titled FIRST GEN.
The film, which is “based on a true lie”, follows Billi as she returns to China for an impromptu wedding, only scheduled so that the family could have a chance to say goodbye to Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the grandmother who doesn’t know she’s terminally ill. On the heels of The Farewell’s release, Wang spoke with Hyperallergic about navigating the gaps inherent to emigrating, adapting her personal narrative for both film and radio (through an episode of This American Life) where she lays out her family narrative, and how life itself can be just as performative as the characters we watch on the big screen.
Hyperallergic: I wanted to open by asking how it feels to translate that feeling of disconnection between first gen individuals and their families elsewhere into a script. How do you capture something so wordless, like revisiting a place you remember but is unfamiliar now, on film?
Lulu Wang: Yeah, it was one thing for me to capture that on This American Life, because it was a radio show, but talking about it was one thing and then translating that visually for the screen was another. And I guess it’s both this, y’know, discomfort, but also longing for something that doesn’t exist. So it’s very much just figuring out the atmosphere and the tone, and it’s why it was important for me to authentically capture everyone’s language skills in the movie, because I don’t think you can tell the story if everyone spoke English. I think, one, it’s unrealistic, and two, you lose something about emigrating and leaving, and how part of that is having all of these different gaps, whether it’s geographical or cultural or generational or the language itself. And yet, somehow the love transcends all of those gaps and that’s really what the film is about.
H: And there’s a rarity to bilinguality being done right on the screen that I think you accomplish so well in The Farewell. It feels so different from building a story around excerpts of actual dialogue, as you did on This American Life. What was it like adapting this story for both an aural medium and a visual one?
LW: I think the process was in many ways the same, actually. I had such a great experience on This American Life and it was such a pure experience. It wasn’t about, y’know, “How do we pull plot points to make this more exciting?” It was more, “How do we dig deeper into what the emotions are?”
My writing for the screenplay was the same, except that in the back of my head I was always saying, “Well, I can’t do that. I can explore, but I can’t explain it through dialogue.” I had to explore a lot of the same feelings in a visual way. And so my DP Anna Franquesa Solano and I worked together very closely to talk about that, where I said, “What’s the right framework so we really feel isolation?”
We picked a really wide aspect ratio so we could fit the entire family in the frame and still be close enough to see their faces, in order to show the landscape of a family, and this idea that the unit, as a group, as a collective, is a character, while still being their own individual characters. There’s a chemistry and a personality to the group.
H: And with that kind of group, you can almost see the film being perfectly set for stage if it wasn’t for the need of subtitles. It’s a very intimate story told in a way that feels grander, and almost theatrical, without ever sacrificing a unique visual style.
LW: It was this interesting thing where I wanted to make something that was both grounded in authenticity and also epic in a surreal kind of way. So it was really these heightened emotional moments, where maybe normally in a Hollywood movie it would be dictated by plot, that I instead leaned into conveying those emotions in an epic visual way. We have this distinction of either it’s a small indie family drama where everything has to be grounded in reality or it’s Spider-Man or some superhero movie where you have tons of slo-mo shots of people walking down the street.
To me, that was what was exciting about making the film. To me, when I’m losing my grandma, the internal feeling I have is the same as some apocalypse movie. The mountains are crumbling and the sky is falling. So I can take some of those influences and put them emotionally in this film.
H: Were there any influences specifically?
LW: I was inspired a lot by Ruben Östlund. I love him so much, and something he does quite a bit is finding this sort of comedy within these very dry, mundane situations, and then somehow being able to make it feel really epic, especially with Force Majeure. What masculinity means to this father/husband is hilarious and tragic at the same time, you know? And Mike Leigh is another really big influence. They actually told me there’s a chance that at our UK premiere that Leigh might do the Q&A and I’m dying.
H: That’s kind of amazing.
LW: I mean, I’ve heard he’s very “no-bullshit” y’know? Which I love that and I’m ready. But the way he works with ensembles and is also able to capture depth as well as humor in the same scene speaks to me.
H: And obviously The Farewell is grounded in one character, but it also feels like, as a viewer, you get to know the whole family. How do you give each character a unique personality and a chance to shine within such an ensemble piece?
LW: It’s hard because there are so many people, but I really was trying to make sure that every person was featured. You talked earlier about it being theatrical and that’s very intentional because, in a way, the characters are putting on a play, right? They’re putting on a performance. They’re performing joy. They’re performing a wedding. And so we wanted those wide frames to serve as and to present that perspective of theatricality. But at the same time, I wanted every character to have a moment in which we see them when they drop the theatrics and when they are actually vulnerable. It’s where we see where they are personally and privately. So even with the smallest characters, I wanted to just show that contrast of performing, performing, performing, and then what it looks like when they drop that, even if it’s just for a little bit.
H: Your first feature, Posthumous, is also about the façades we put on in a way. The Farewell has all of its characters acting to avoid the discussion of death, versus Posthumous which sort of embraces death and involves performing as someone who has experienced a death in the family. Is death and the performative nature that often pops up around it a topic of interest for you?
LW: I guess so. I don’t think it’s a conscious choice, y’know? I didn’t realize until afterwards that there’s death in both my movies and they both start with news of some kind of fake death and lying. I do think that’s a conscious choice though: I’m interested in lying because I think we all lie. We all tell stories. And whether those stories are to other people or to ourselves, they form our narrative. They form our perspective of the world. So I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that we tell each other and ourselves. I also think that I just like dark comedy.
H: I do think that a lot of immigrants are interested in exploring how we tell stories and what routes we take in telling the truth vs lying to see what’s more beneficial. Your characters explore that, especially in avoiding the discussion of death to keep joy present and avoid tragedy.
LW: Exactly. That’s very much my family, and sometimes it’s the frustrating thing, and also the wonderful thing about them. There’s no need for melodrama, and in a way, that in and of itself is a melodrama, where it’s just like, “Don’t be dramatic!” and it’s like, “Alright Mom, who’s being dramatic right now?” Like come on! [laughs]
But, you know, there’s this practicality of living in the moment and making the best of things that’s very much an immigrant mentality. And what I’ve always loved is that we may not have a lot, but we’re going to make the best of this moment and what we do have. We have pride. We may be poor, but I’m still going to take the food out of the container and put it on a plate so we can enjoy this lovely meal as a family. Or we don’t have a lot of money, but you know, when we were living in Miami we’d just go to the beach because it was free and we’d bring some stuff and put it on the barbecue. That’s the kind of mentality and the kind of joy that I wanted to capture in this kind of family.
H: When you have to leave so much behind, it’s a game of trying to find out what can make you happy in the moment. But how do you process grief without actually being able to explicitly confront it around your family?
LW: There’s a desire, in a way, to want more, right? To want more out of the movie, want more out of life. Like, I got some notes in the beginning asking, “Can we have a bigger low point? Can we have a more dramatic catharsis? Can we have the grandma find out? Because I’m curious what would happen then.” But, y’know, that’s a very American thing, to want those things and to have that satisfaction through entertainment and through the media. It’s why we watch reality shows and all this stuff, but I’m not here to create sensationalism.
I want those things too in my real life. I want a goodbye. I want to tell her the truth. I want some kind of closure. But the reality of life is that the majority of the time, we don’t have those things, so you have to find beauty and closure within yourself somehow. You have to find closure without necessarily getting it. I mean, I’m still struggling with it, but I think, for me, the one thing I’ve learned through the whole journey is that, in the beginning, I needed answers and questioned, “What is right and what is wrong?” I was pretty sure this was wrong, and thought once I told the world everyone would agree with me.
But then as I went through the process, I realized that the most humbling thing about humans is that there is no answer. We’re desperately trying to put things into boxes and separate ourselves from someone and say, “I’m right, you’re wrong, this is good and that’s bad,” and draw black-and-white distinctions as opposed to just kind of having a conversation about all of the nuances and the grays and all the ways in which we’re different. And maybe we’ll disagree, but it doesn’t mean I’m right and you’re wrong.
H: So then the process itself of making The Farewell has been cathartic for you?
LW: Oh, absolutely! And not in a way that I would have anticipated or expected. When I went through the experience, I wasn’t like, “Gosh, my grandma’s dying and my family won’t tell her. Maybe I can go to Sundance with this!” [laughs] But in a way, that’s what’s magical about life, is that you follow your curiosity and you follow the questions, y’know? I think of myself like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. I follow the questions and I’m open to where life leads me, and I think you have to stay open to what the universe has to teach you.