Over breakfast on a recent morning in Beverly Hills, Awkwafina proudly estimated that 80% of the people she’s met at screenings of her latest film, “The Farewell,” have come up to her misty-eyed. Hearing that, the film’s writer-director, Lulu Wang, smiled.
Those tears are validating for the rising filmmaker, who based her second feature on an “actual lie” her family agreed to tell her grandmother in 2013. When the matriarch was diagnosed with terminal cancer, family members requested she not be told in order to spare her the grim prospect of facing the truth in her remaining months — a practice not uncommon in China.
“My goal is to leave people talking about the film, or talking about their own lives and their own family, or calling their grandma,” said Wang, whose parents emigrated from China to Miami when she was 6 years old. “That’s my gift to the world. We should all call our grandmas more.”
Awkwafina — the stage name of rapper and actress Nora Lum, who scored a killer pair of breakout roles in last summer’s “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8” — stars in “The Farewell” as struggling New York City artist Billi. The fictional stand-in for Wang makes a last-minute trek to China to say goodbye to her dying grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) over the objections of her relatives, including her immigrant parents, Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (Tzi Ma).
They worry Billi is too American to keep her emotions from betraying the truth to her grandma, whom she affectionately calls “Nai Nai.” But as the family gathers at a wedding staged to bring the clan together one last time, conflicting cultural ideas about identity, mortality and filial piety collide as everyone aches from the grief of their shared secret.
The extraordinarily personal inspiration means “The Farewell,” which opens in limited release July 12 and will expand throughout the summer, is more than just a film to Wang; its very existence is part of a real story that continues offscreen.
That’s because (spoiler alert!) the real Nai Nai is still with us, six years after her initial diagnosis — and she remains unaware of both her condition and the premise of her granddaughter’s film.
Nevertheless, Wang shot “The Farewell” in her grandmother’s actual neighborhood and the matriarch was a frequent visitor to the set in Changchun, China, squeezing Lum’s cheeks and attempting to feed her filmmaker granddaughter between scenes. She even has a cameo onscreen, scooting across a busy street in her motorized wheelchair as actors playing her family walk by.
The secret has been upheld this far. But the film just locked a Chinese distributor, which Wang acknowledges could throw a wrench into the family’s pact.
“I was like, ‘Guys, remember how we were always like, punting the question until later?’ ” Wang said. “We have Chinese distribution, which means they’re going to cut a Chinese trailer, and all the marketing is still going to come out.”
The film’s title in Chinese, she says, translates to “Don’t Tell Her.” Wang shrugged. Yes, it’s complicated. But that’s life.
“I still think the same thing about the decision, which is that I can’t make a moral judgment around it,” she said. “But I do often think that none of this would have happened without the lie, right? The lie has enabled me to make this film, to tell this story, but more importantly it enabled me to spend time with my grandmother.”
Wang’s great-aunt, Lu Hong, connects by phone in the wee hours of the morning from Changchun, where she lives in the same building three floors above her sister, Wang’s grandmother. In a few days she will fly to New York with her husband to see “The Farewell” — which marks her film debut — for the first time. (She’ll sport crimson red shades on the red carpet.)
“I’m glad to report that my sister’s health at this moment is still gradually going down but in general at this moment is stable,” she said via Wang’s father, Haiyan, her nephew, who translated.
Because Lu is Nai Nai’s younger sister, Wang calls her “Lil Nai Nai.” Wang remembers the challenge of casting the pivotal roles of both women. After much convincing she talked Lu into playing herself, and gave her singing dog Ellen a scene-stealing cameo.
“It was very difficult for me to go through this difficult period of time in my life again,” Lu admitted, adding that she’s grateful Wang talked her into it. “But what worried me most of all was that I could not play it well.
“If I did OK, it’s because of Lulu’s efforts,” she added with pride. “Lulu spent a lot of time and explained to me line by line. It took a lot of effort. But the bottom line is, Lulu gave me a lot of courage.”
The casting was doubly meaningful since it was Lil Nai Nai who made the choice that her sister, 18 years her elder, should be spared the knowledge of her cancer diagnosis. She acknowledged that when the film eventually comes out in China, her sister may learn the truth.
“It’s a hard question to answer, because I don’t know the answer at this moment,” she said. “She’s also been curious many times, asking, ‘What’s the name? What is the movie about?’ But I had a good excuse to say, ‘I don’t know because I played my part, but the rest of it is in English! I could not understand it,’ ” she laughed.
“We feel conflicted because we want her to see it,” she said. “We want her to see the success of her granddaughter. But for the sake of her health ... she’s been alive for so many years without knowing. I think maybe that’s part of the factors that made her live that long. But I don’t know. I will continue to play by ear.”
Before anyone agreed to finance “The Farewell” in the way she wanted to tell it, Wang shared her personal story in audio form on an episode of “This American Life.” (New York-based indie production company Big Beach eventually came aboard, and will team with budding financier Votiv on Wang’s third feature, the sci-fi adaptation “Children of the New World.”)
To make the film, she fought battles every step of the way, like the notes she’d get when pitching the project to studio execs. Notes urging her to hew closer to conventional Hollywood storytelling and structure — adding a love interest for Billi, for example, or giving her a lesson to learn.
“They were like, ‘But what are the stakes? An 80-year-old Chinese grandma? Who’s gonna care?’ ” remembered Wang. “Now the film’s out and people are like, ‘Oh my God it reminds me of my grandma, I was sobbing,’ and I’m like, ‘THANK YOU.’ ”
For Lum, who was coming off mostly comedic parts in a nascent feature film career, “The Farewell” presented a chance to tackle her first dramatic and lead role.
The Queens native was raised by her Chinese American dad and grandmother after her mom, who was Korean, died at an early age. As she read Wang’s script, Lum felt a familiarity not only in Billi’s relationship with her Nai Nai but her feelings about Asian American identity.
“I forget what the origin is,” she said. “I think it’s a Norwegian word, and it means a longing for a time and place that no longer exists. I think with Lulu’s story there is something to be said about remembering a time, a happy moment, a home where you felt like you belonged.”
Billi struggles to recall that sense of belonging as she returns to a China she knew as a child. The distance Billi feels between her American life and the customs, values and even language of her Chinese relatives echoes throughout “The Farewell,” which is in both English and Mandarin.
Lum drew on her relationship with her own grandmother — without whom her “Awkwafina” persona wouldn’t exist, she says — to portray Billi’s close bond with her Nai Nai, which helped her slide into character with little rehearsal time once the scrappy five-week shoot began.
“My grandma always nurtured the weirder things I used to get made fun of in school for,” she said. “I would come home and cry and she would tell me, ‘You’re not weird — these are the things that you’ll realize make you special.’ ”
For the cast, meeting members of Wang’s family helped them understand the complex personalities and experiences that shaped the family dynamic. Lin, who plays Billi’s mother, Jian, felt an immediate kinship with Wang’s mother as women who put down roots in new countries.
“We were educated in China,” explained Lin, a native of China who emigrated to Australia, where she is based. “We try to understand the Western world but we are like a floating boat. We really don’t belong to anywhere.”
She lends razor-sharp comic timing to the no-nonsense Jian, who is constantly haranguing Billi over her life choices.
“For me, that’s this Asian type of love,” said Lin. “‘You idiots, why don’t you put on more clothes, it’s a cold day!’ We don’t coddle you. I think the reason you may feel her mom is judgmental and tough is we believe if we tell kids too many good things, they will feel not humble and won’t achieve,” she said with a smile. “And we want you to be 100% perfect.”
Likewise, veteran character actor Ma (“The Man in the High Castle,” “Mulan”) took an instant liking to Wang’s father, a former Chinese diplomat who worked for decades as an interpreter in the States.
“He is an interesting man whom I think Lulu should do a film about,” Ma said with a conspiratorial smile, his Staten Island accent slipping out.
Details of the real Haiyan’s life, even those predating the setting of “The Farewell,” proved invaluable for Ma, who plays him with sensitivity as he quietly wrestles with the guilt of having moved his family to America and away from his own mother.
“Those things are monumental for an actor,” he said. “Unfortunately I don’t think we get enough of it, because there’s never enough time to do a role. Tom Hanks gets a year off doing ‘Castaway’ to get skinny and get nasty! We don’t. We’re ready to fly.”
By “we,” he means Asian American actors, who rarely get the chance to play meaty roles in Hollywood. “Very seldom will we get a situation where you’re so valued that they say, ‘We’re going to give you all the time in the world.’ Even in this case, there wasn’t enough time because it was a low-budget film. It wasn’t like we had a whole lot of resources.”
By the time the film landed at Sundance, it scored some of the festival’s strongest reviews and sparked a bidding war. (Wang left a small fortune on the table from an unnamed streaming platform to go with a traditional theatrical release from A24.)
While she and the film have been tipped as award-season contenders, one of the most important critics weighed in as soon as the credits rolled on that very first screening. “Pretty good,” Wang’s father shouted from the audience at Sundance — a reaction the filmmaker later said amounted to an “Asian A+.”
A week before the film’s release, the elder Wang described the experience of seeing “The Farewell” take off. He’d been a diplomat and his wife was working as a writer in China when they made the tough choice to leave after the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre.
“I made the decision at that point that that’s not the government that I want to continue to serve,” he said.
They started from scratch in America, hoping to give their children opportunities they wouldn’t have in China.
“We wanted our children to be free of fear, free of exploitation by the government,” he said, “and many times we felt the fear that maybe that wasn’t a good choice for my children. Or maybe they wouldn’t really appreciate what we had done.”
As many immigrant parents do, he admits that he and Wang’s mother worried over their daughter’s career choice — until they saw her short films and her first feature, the 2014 romantic comedy “Posthumous.”
“I thought, everyone goes to Hollywood, everyone wants to be a movie star, and everyone wants to be a director. But how many people fail? We didn’t think that Lulu could be a success,” he said. “And we realized, she can do it! We’re really happy.
“We’re also moved by the fact that like so many Americans, regardless of whether they’re first-generation Chinese, she can be afforded this opportunity to make a successful movie career,” he said. “That’s unimaginable in my country, China, and in many, many other countries, so we’re grateful to this country.”
While filming in China, Lulu Wang revealed, she and some of her female department heads, including cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, had to fight battles on their own set.
“There were times when Anna and I would be like, ‘We don’t have the resources but we want this to be a cinematic film, we want it to have a cinematic language.’ We would fight for something and somebody on the crew would be like, ‘Oh, sorry we’ve got to do it again because the girls want cinema,’ in a very condescending way,” said Wang.
“That’s the thing about Lulu,” smiled Lum, praising the director for pushing to bring her vision to the screen. “We need heroes now. Asian girls need heroes, especially when it comes to writer-directors. We also need heroes that don’t take no for an answer when it comes to something that’s beneficial for the whole project.”
Lum said reactions to the film underscore how strongly “The Farewell” resonates with audiences of all backgrounds — a testament to the value of empowering more voices in the industry. “When you allow us to tell our own stories, you don’t know who they’ll reach.”
“That’s what I hope,” said Wang, “that it’s tangible evidence that when you fight for specificity, [a personal film] can have broad appeal. And that it leads to studios and independent production companies to go and look for those stories, and green light more of them.”