Writer/director Lulu Wang is having a 100% Fresh moment on Rotten Tomatoes. The Farewell marks only the second film by the New World School of the Arts alum, who grew up in Miami after emigrating from Beijing with her family when she was 6. She now lives in Los Angeles but recently returned to her former hometown to work the hype for the followup to her 2015 debut feature, Posthumous.
Unlike many critically praised films, there also seems to be a genuine interest in the movie by the public. So far, The Farewell has surpassed Avengers: Endgame for the largest per-theater box office average of the year, according to Box Office Mojo, meaning Wang's film pulled in more people on average for each movie theater on its opening day in New York City and Los Angeles than Endgame.
“It’s just really surreal,” says the filmmaker, curled into the corner of a couch at Soho Beach House, “because I made a film that was for me, a film for my family, a film for families like mine who understand what it feels like to be separated by geography, culture, age — you know, different generations — and so I was just hoping that people who understood those feelings would really relate to it.”
The movie follows the reunion of family members in China to spend quality time with their matriarch (played by Zhao Shuzhen), who has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Because it's cultural custom to keep such diagnoses secret from the stricken for fear it could make their final days on Earth depressing, weaken their immune system, and lead to an untimelier death, the family avoids telling Nai Nai (Madarin for "grandmother") about her test results. Instead, they set up a wedding as a pretense for the reunion. The film stars Awkwafina as Billi, a New York transplant who has daily conversations with Nai Nai. Despite her parents' request that she remain in the States because her emotions will give away the secret, she flies to China.
The film opens with a title card stating, “Based on an actual lie.” It turns out this is Wang’s story, with Awkwafina standing in for the director's experience. “I didn’t necessarily set out to make a film for the mass audience,” Wang says. “Even for my parents, when they read the script, they said, ‘It’s very authentic to what happened, but why does anybody care?’ You know, they think of Hollywood as Die Hard and Spider-Man, these types of films that are sort of about epic things and epic plots, and for them, they were like, ‘This is interesting?’ I didn’t know how to answer that question. I said, ‘Well, it’s interesting to somebody because my investors are giving me money to make this film, so it’s interesting to my producers, and it’s interesting to me because I can’t stop thinking about some of these questions that I’ve had on my mind.'”
Awkwafina, a comedian who broke onto the scene through a viral video and a scene-stealing supporting performance in Crazy Rich Asians, wasn’t the first person Wang thought of for the role. She says a producer suggested Awkwafina before Crazy Rich Asians or even Oceans 8 (another of her high-profile supporting performances) had even come out. All Wang knew about her was she was a musician/rapper.
“She wasn’t the most obvious choice, because I didn’t know she was an actor or especially that she was a serious actor who was doing dramatic roles,” Wang says.
Key for Awkwafina was she could relate to the bond between Nai Nai and Billi. “She had just such a personal connection to the story because she was raised by her own Chinese grandmother,” Wang reveals.
The actor self-recorded her audition, in which she read several scenes from Wang’s script, and the director was touched by the subtlety in her performance. “It was really the fact that she was so good in her silence,” Wang says. “There were so many moments when she wasn’t talking, when the person off-camera was reading lines, and she was just listening. And sometimes with actors, when they’re not delivering lines, you kind of see them space out or they overdo it. But there was something that was just so quiet and deep about the way she listened and the way she was processing all of her emotions.”
Emotions are a key part of Billi’s character and a driving element to make this empathetic lie at the center of the film work. “I didn’t want to exaggerate or create plot because then it becomes about the plot of the movie as opposed to the heart of it,” Wang explains, “which is this relationship between her and her grandmother. So, for me, it’s really about how I felt in certain moments and what the emotions were all about.”
The last time this reporter spoke with Wang, she expressed an interest in Miami as the setting for a movie. Though she is already involved in her next project — a sci-fi movie based on Alexander Weinstein’s collection of short stories titled Children of the New World — she says her interest in the Magic City hasn’t waned.
“I’m working on it,” she assures. “I would love to come back here to shoot something. I would have to find the right story, though.”
The Farewell opens in wide release August 2.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos (indieethos.com) if not in New Times.