a photo of Lulu Wang on a poster for "The Farewell"
A24 / Taylor Jewel l /Invision / AP / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

When a Lie Becomes Your Breakout Film

With The Farewell, the writer-director Lulu Wang has made a bittersweet drama about her family’s choice to deceive one of their own.

This story contains spoilers for The Farewell.

A man is crying—no, convulsing with sobs—on-screen inside a theater in downtown Los Angeles during a pivotal scene in the film The Farewell. He’s at a wedding banquet and he’s supposed to be toasting the newlyweds, but he’s shifted his attention to his mother instead—and, as if at a funeral, he’s weeping. His mother watches, baffled at the way he’s doubled over in grief, not joy. It’s intense. It’s quiet.

And then: Someone sitting close to the screen laughs. The cackle cuts sharply through the silence, and it catches the film’s writer-director, Lulu Wang—there because it’s the L.A. premiere of her breakout hit—off guard.

“The last time I saw [The Farewell] with an audience was at Sundance, and I don’t think there was as much laughter during [that] speech, when he breaks down,” Wang told me the next day, late in June. “It usually gets really quiet and tense in that moment, and then the laughter comes once the camera cuts away from him But last night, it was almost like—” She raises her voice and mimics the laughter. “Ah ha ha ha! Like, laughing at him?”

Don’t get her wrong: She wasn’t disturbed by the reaction. “I’m not the kind of filmmaker who feels like, You have permission to laugh here, but not there,” she explained. Rather, she was delighted by the unexpected liveliness. “I was just really hoping people didn’t hate it, because it is so personal, and it is my family. If they hated it, then they hate us, in a way, you know?”

Indeed, the deeply sincere and personal The Farewell, released in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, has had a profoundly powerful effect on its viewers so far, whether prompting tears or unexpected laughter. Wang based the film, her second feature, on a lie that she and her family told: In 2013, her nai nai (the Mandarin term for paternal grandmothers), was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, but the family chose not to tell her—a call that may seem unusual but is actually in keeping with Chinese values of sharing emotional burdens. (This way, Nai Nai doesn’t have to carry the weight of knowing about her failing health; the family does it for her.) To ensure that everyone got a chance to say goodbye, they orchestrated a shotgun wedding for Wang’s cousin in China, an elaborate cover-up that Wang, who grew up in the United States but remained close to Nai Nai, struggled to accept even as she participated in the deception.

The film depicts these events through the eyes of Wang’s avatar, Billi, played by the Crazy Rich Asians scene-stealer Awkwafina. When Billi learns of the plot, she’s torn between wanting to tell Nai Nai—so her grandmother can get her affairs in order—and wanting to support her parents, aunts, and uncles. She’s distraught, but showing her emotions would invite Nai Nai’s suspicion.

As for Wang’s concerns that her bittersweet family drama would be hated, she needn’t have worried: Since its debut at Sundance in January, it’s been lauded by critics, presented at scores of festivals around the world, and showered with honors, including the Audience Favourite Award at Sundance’s London fete. That night in downtown L.A., Wang picked up yet another trophy—the Sundance Institute Vanguard Award, which has previously been given to indie filmmakers such as Dee Rees, Marielle Heller, and Boots Riley—and announced, to a spirited full house, that the film had landed Chinese distribution, the details of which are still being finalized.

It’s been a whirlwind tour for Wang, who is frequently approached by fans affected by her film. Most of the time, they want to share their emotions and life stories, to tell her how much her nai nai reminds them of their own, or how much her family resembles theirs. “It’s happened at every single screening I’ve been to,” Daniele Melia, one of the producers of The Farewell, told me. “She’s created something that is touching people in such a universal way, considering the story she’s telling is as personal a story as any filmmaker has ever told.”

Many of Wang’s admirers cry when they come up to her, and even now, months into the promo circuit, Wang cries too. She’s surprised by how emotional she still gets. “I feel like I could sit down with this person and have a three-hour meal or something to really talk it through, but I don’t have that,” she said. “It’s very intense in a very short burst of time.”

When Wang met me in Hollywood the day after the L.A. premiere, she wasn’t crying. She was laughing, actually. About penises.

Specifically, a penis-themed bar she and her producers had found while filming in Changchun, China, Nai Nai’s hometown and where the Beijing-born Wang lived for a year before immigrating to Miami at age 6. The hangout, which features phallus-shaped beer taps, is an oddity for the city known as the “Detroit of China”; the bartenders crack jokes about handle length and the size of beer orders. “It was very popular,” Wang observed, chuckling at the absurdity.

She recalled her visit to the bar because it was emblematic of a point she was trying to make: that in creating a film this autobiographical—about her family’s private turmoil—she had to view her former home from a distance.

“Whenever I would go back to Changchun in the past, I would be relegated to a child,” she explained. “You regress … This time, going back to shoot the movie, I went back as an adult. I went back as a director. We had to find apartments to live in, and I was navigating the city … I left when I was 6, so I didn’t know how to talk about sex in Chinese, because I never learned that. So I didn’t know the word for sex! When I learned it, I learned it as a foreign word.”

Raunchy bars and mature terminology: Wang likes to inject a dose of zany levity into explaining poignant matters, such as the experience of negotiating multiple worlds as an immigrant. She approached The Farewell this way. Some of the film’s most tender, moving sequences built on weighty themes—themes of grief, familial love, and identity—are balanced with disarming humor. In one scene midway through the film, when the family visits the grave of Billi’s grandfather to pay their respects and leave offerings, they bicker over whether to give him cigarettes to smoke in the afterlife because no one’s sure whether he quit when he was alive.

Wang blankets the film, starring Awkwafina (center), in Chinese specificity. (A24)

Scenes such as this one work because they’re grounded so much in Wang’s own reality. Though she cast Awkwafina to help separate herself from the story, so that she could operate as a filmmaker—“In writing the script, I had to look at Billi as a character who goes on a journey that is a version of me,” she said—the strength of the film lies in how much Wang drew from her real life. She cast her own great-aunt, Nai Nai’s sister Hong Lu (who goes by Lil Nai Nai), to play herself. A dinner-table conversation includes an anecdote lifted from Wang’s childhood, and a framed photo of her real grandparents hangs above Nai Nai’s bed. Wang blankets the film in Chinese specificity: Nai Nai calls Billi a “stupid child”—an insult to Westerners’ ears, but an endearing term in Chinese families. There’s a brief discussion about the modern Chinese colloquialism mei nu, or “beautiful woman,” as a way to refer to, well, women. After the wedding, Nai Nai hands Billi a classic Chinese red envelope, for luck.

These details help illustrate the ways in which Billi, despite being in her home country, feels like an outsider—and the film doesn’t shy away from wrestling with that idea. She is asked again and again to define whether she’s Asian or American, as when a hotel concierge jovially asks her whether she thinks China or America is better as he takes her to her room. Billi, jet-lagged after flying from New York and not as fluent in Mandarin as she’d like, answers that they’re just “different.” At dinner with her family, her relatives argue over the same subject. Neither side wins in the scene, which “came so naturally to me because I’ve heard that conversation so many times throughout my life,” Wang said. “In a way, it was easy to write. It just spilled out of me.”

In fact, she added, writing The Farewell was therapeutic—a way to try to answer burning questions she had about what happened. “Is what my family is doing wrong? Am I crazy for believing that this might be wrong? I’ve realized that there is no answer. It’s not about being right or being wrong and choosing a side,” she said. “It’s about how to truly love someone and accept them and respect our differences.”

But if Wang found adapting her story fulfilling, getting the film made turned out to be a frustrating journey. She’d already directed one movie (2014’s Posthumous) and several shorts by the time she started pitching The Farewell in 2016, but the idea of a film about an Asian American woman that featured an all-Asian cast and used a mostly Mandarin script confused producers. Wang constantly fielded the same question: Was the film American or Chinese? “It’s a very confrontational question, because it’s basically the question about my identity that I had to answer all my life: Are you American or are you Chinese?” she said. “I would say, ‘I’m American, so this is an American film, because it’s an American perspective’ … But then I would say, ‘Well, this is how I want to cast it, and this is the language that everybody speaks, and this is the food that everybody eats,’ [and] they’d say, ‘Oh, but that’s not American.’”

The same happened with Chinese investors, who questioned why Chinese audiences would want to follow an American protagonist. They suggested that Wang create another character, a Chinese one with “Chinese values,” she remembered; the story would then be about Billi seeing “how valuable the Chinese perspective is.” Wang shook her head. “I was like … ‘That’s not my experience.’”

Wang finally caught a break when she wrote the tale as a short story and landed a segment on an episode of This American Life. The producer Neil Drumming and his team didn’t ask who the story was for; instead, they asked how Wang felt about what had happened, and placed her “in the story as a human being, as a daughter, as a granddaughter,” she recalled. “When I approached the film, I knew I had to do it the same way, inside out, as opposed to outside in. I think that that’s the mistake that Hollywood often makes: that they approach diversity from the outside in. They’re still looking at it from an aesthetic, surface level of representation.”

Once again, Wang turned to humor to explain what she meant. She brought up the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s hit Netflix special, Nanette, and referenced a line that’s stayed with her: “I love that joke that she tells about how she got feedback saying that there was not enough lesbian content, and she’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so confused. I was onstage the entire time!’” Wang laughed. “So for someone to go, ‘Can you make an Asian film?’ I’m like …” She shrugged and pointed at herself. “Look at me! What else am I?

After This American Life, Wang’s story picked up steam: Her segment caught the attention of the producer Chris Weitz, who helped The Farewell find financing. In 2017, Melia and the producer Andrew Miano visited China with Wang to scout locations; meet with their Chinese producing partner, Jane Zheng; and hang out with Wang’s family. “We got to really understand the world by being there,” Melia said. “I think the script made so much more sense to us after going, and we could give notes that really felt like they were specific to the experience of being in that place.”

Wang on the set of The Farewell (Casi Moss / A24)

Wang shot the film during the summer of 2018, spending more than two months toggling between English and Mandarin to guide her cast and crew. She finished postproduction in early 2019, just a week before she headed to Sundance. The movie’s debut there launched a bidding war, during which Wang and her team turned down a $15 million streaming deal in favor of the indie film company A24’s (Moonlight, Lady Bird) $6 million bid for distribution rights. “It was one of those exciting, stay-up-at-midnight conversations,” Melia said.

The Farewell’s long trek to the screen paid off for Wang. She’s fully aware that she’s been telling her family’s most personal story—a traumatic saga about, as the film puts it, “an actual lie”—but doing so has been “empowering,” she said. By making an autobiographical film, she’s bridged her role in her family with her career as a filmmaker: “Part of my development as an artist, and my development as a human being, is to see myself as whole.”

That includes her relationship with her parents. When she first began pursuing writing and filmmaking, after originally training to be a classical pianist, they were fearful, even though they’d come from fairly unconventional careers themselves. (Wang’s mother was a writer, her father a diplomat who represented China in what was then the U.S.S.R.) Wang felt shackled: Choosing the risky path of becoming a filmmaker, with little chance of success, challenged her parents’ reasons for immigrating. “You … have to overcome the guilt that the choices you make are hurting the ones you love,” Wang said. “How can you feel free when you’re filling the people you love with fear?”

That fear dissipated when she proved her filmmaking prowess with Posthumous. Her parents even got involved with The Farewell: They read an early draft of the script, helped with the Chinese translations, and supported Wang at events. “The journey for them has been learning to let go … [and] to respect me as an individual, separate from them,” she said. “That’s been hard. It’s a goodbye in many ways, and a celebration.”

Still, their dynamic hasn’t fully changed. After Wang accepted her trophy that night in L.A., she headed backstage, where her mother pulled her aside and greeted her with a warning: “There’s only one egg in the fridge.”

“I’m thinking, Where are there eggs in my movie?” Wang recalled. “And then she’s like, ‘The chicken soup, we boiled it [and] had the chicken, but there’s still soup left.’ I was like, Oh! She’s talking about [what’s] in my home.”

Wang laughed. “She went into extensive detail about what I should do about my groceries, and I was like, ‘Mom, I live five minutes’ walking distance from a grocery store. I will be fine. I will not die because I’ve only got one egg left.’”

Major spoiler alert: The end of the film reveals that Nai Nai is still alive, and still in the dark about her cancer diagnosis. When filming in Changchun, Wang told everyone not to tell Nai Nai, who believed her granddaughter was shooting a film about a wacky wedding. (Which is true, Wang pointed out.) Wang “didn’t necessarily want to hide everything the movie was about from her grandmother, but she didn’t want her to know that it was all about her,” Melia recalled.

But keeping the complete plot a secret was a challenge. The film’s working title was Nai Nai for a while, so signage on set had to be removed when shooting edged close to Nai Nai’s neighborhood. When Wang’s grandmother visited, producers turned off playback monitors and Wang scrambled to confiscate T-shirts that bore Nai Nai’s name. Since filming wrapped in Changchun, Lil Nai Nai, who lives in the same building as her sister, has kept her away from footage of the film on the internet. So, the lie remains in effect.

Billi (Awkwafina) curls up to Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) in a scene from the film. (Casi Moss / A24)

That said, preventing Nai Nai from learning the truth is going to get harder. The film’s Chinese distribution deal is in progress and the Chinese title of The Farewell translates directly to Don’t Tell Her. Nai Nai will probably figure it out from there.

Wang joked that she’ll just have to provide a Nai Nai–only director’s cut of the film, but that in all honesty, “I haven’t had time to think about it.” Instead, she’s placing the responsibility of deciding what to do in the hands of Lil Nai Nai and her father, who masterminded the lie. “They’re going to come up with a better solution than I am. And they should.”

In the meantime, when she’s not on the road promoting The Farewell, Wang is working on the script for her follow-up: Children of the New World, a sci-fi drama delving into family ties that’s adapted from a short-story collection by Alexander Weinstein. It won’t be based on her own experiences, but Wang argued that she’ll bring herself into any project she works on. “It’s definitely challenging to think about how to approach something in a really, really personal way that isn’t autobiographical,” she said. “Because I’m making something personal, does that mean it has to be autobiographical?”

The pressure of topping the early success of The Farewell, meanwhile, is another matter: “I’m trying to compartmentalize it,” she conceded. “Even with The Farewell, I had to do a lot of meditating to come to the conclusion that I can only control what I can control. I can’t control the external reactions … Hopefully in the future, I can maintain that stance.”

Not everything can be compartmentalized, though—especially the emotions that still pour out of those who want to talk with her about the film, and the emotions she feels in turn. “It’s like an empathetic cry,” she said. “I can see their tears coming, so I start going, and ... Ooooh no.”

Plus, she pointed out, identifying exactly why someone is crying is not always so easy. She believes Asian American viewers in particular have a “multidimensional” reaction to her film and to seeing her, the rare director of color, behind the camera. “Am I crying because of the representation? Am I crying because I’m losing my own grandmother? Am I crying because there’s this woman and she’s doing what I want to do? A lot of times, it just comes out in—” She flails her arms, demonstrating the overwhelming nature of it all. “I’m like, ‘I know, I know.’”

And she really does. Despite being a collection of observations about one particular family, The Farewell is magical in its recognizability and intimacy. Families—with their generational differences and unbreakable bonds and singular issues—are universally messy, and so are the emotions involved.

Back in the downtown-L.A. theater the night of the premiere, the man on-screen is no longer sobbing. He’s looking out over the wedding banquet, trying to finish his toast, but he’s too devastated to think of a proper conclusion. So instead of saying goodbye, he lands on a nonsensical yet genuinely moving turn of phrase: “Happy thank you,” he murmurs into his mic.

From there, Wang cuts to a shot of the bewildered guests staring at him. Inside the theater, the audience, mostly silent just a moment ago, breaks out into peals of laughter.