In 2016, filmmaker Lulu Wang went on This American Life and talked about her grandmother’s stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis, a death sentence her family decided to hide from the matriarch. This month, Wang’s screen adaptation of that story and that experience, The Farewell, one of 2019’s best movies to date, opens in theaters following its rapturous Sundance reception. It follows Billi (Awkwafina) as she returns to China to say goodbye to her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), who happens to be the only person who has no idea she’s got very limited time left, thinking everyone is visiting for a wedding.
The film’s laurels are well-earned; it’s an exceptionally well-realized, deeply personal effort, and represents a meteoric leap for Wang following her 2014 screwball rom-com art world debut, Posthumous. Key to The Farewell’s success is its shrewd sense of the cultural obstacles that stymie bereavement: Social conventions for proper grieving often make grieving awkward if not impossible to do on one’s own terms. Should you cry when loved ones die? Laugh? Stay stoic and stuff down everything you feel about their passing? Celebrate their life? The Farewell goes with “all of the above,” blending outrageous comedy, stifling heartache and sharp observations on death, dying, what we owe to the living, to the deceased, to ourselves and to surviving family. It’s a movie built to litigate the notion that we need consent to grieve.
The Farewell made its Boston premiere at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. Paste Magazine sat down with Wang at the event to talk with her about the intersection where mourning meets satire:
Paste Magazine: So, what is it about death that goes so well with comedy? I think about this all the time.
Lulu Wang: [laughing] I guess it’s in a way melodrama, because [death] is such a dramatic thing. Realistically, it’s a very dramatic thing for us as humans. I think what it does is, it’s a really humbling topic and it makes us vulnerable. We, as humans, want to believe we have the answers to everything. We’re prideful creatures that have our dignity, and when death comes up, we have no answers. We don’t know how to deal with our emotions, and a lot of cultures don’t teach us how to deal with them. So there is no real outlet. You’re supposed to be stoic, and it’s hilarious to watch dignified creatures become undignified, and vulnerable, and melodramatic. That’s what I tapped into.
Paste: The prideful part really stuck out to me. It takes such a toll. There’s already this immense physical and spiritual toll that death itself takes on people. That excess pride that you wear on your shoulders just adds to that. Did you feel like that helped enhance the comedy?
Wang: Yeah. I think there are certain characters, especially, where they have these rules set for themselves for how they’re going to behave and how they’re not going to behave, and it’s so much fun to watch people break their own rules. I think the uncle character, for example, is one of those. He’s the person that most doesn’t want to break down, so it’s the most satisfying to watch him break down.
Paste: I wanted to give him a hug so bad. He’s such a darling man. I felt so bad for him.
Wang: And the awkward clapping of his speech!
Paste: What’s so great about that, and I don’t know if this was your intention when you filmed it, is no one in the audience knew how to react to that, either. So they wound up mirroring the reactions of the characters in the movie.
Wang: Did anyone laugh?
Paste: It was that awkward “ha ha,” stuck in your throat kind of chuckling, like they felt bad for laughing at this very uncomfortable moment.
Wang: [laughing] People ask that all the time, like, “What am I supposed to do? Did you write that with the intention of us laughing? Is it OK to laugh?” I love that question. In some ways it’s such an annoying question, but a lot of people ask, “Do I have permission?” I mean, do you ever have permission in life to do anything really? No one needs to give you permission to laugh or to cry. And sometimes people laugh at really inappropriate things because we’re humans, and that’s a guttural reaction you can’t help. The way that we cope oftentimes is by laughing, and I like to think that we’re not laughing. I always laugh. I mean, I laughed filming it, but I was also crying, and it’s OK to do both of those things.
Paste: Tying that back to what you were talking about earlier, about how we don’t culturally have guidelines for how to deal with grief, do you feel like rejecting the idea that we need permission is the best way to handle that?
Wang: Absolutely. I think that we live in a culture where we want to put things into boxes. It’s one of the reasons we have genre labels for movies. Is this a drama or a comedy? Tell me, am I going to be laughing or am I not going to laugh? Life is not that way at all, right? What about both? OK, well then it’s a drama and a comedy. I mean, it’s a movie, right? It’s got moments of everything, the way that life does. So absolutely, I think that the ability to shed the need for permission and judgments of other people or judgments of ourselves allows us to open the doors for more communication and to ask each other questions like, “Why were you laughing?” I mean, that’s a good question.
Paste: Are you—”afraid” is too strong a word—but do you fear people will put The Farewell into boxes? It balances comedy and real heartbreak, but I’m afraid people will say call it either a comedy or a drama instead of letting it be.
Wang: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think “afraid” is the right word for it because people are going to do what people are gonna do, and I think as a filmmaker, that’s the other part of it for me: Letting go of the need to control it and letting go of how people see it, and just letting it exist in the world. However people want to label it or call it for themselves is up to them. I just hope that viewers don’t, when they see those genre things or when they watch a trailer, that they’re not judging the entire movie based on those boxes or a specific marketing campaign, because so much of that is marketing to say, “OK, we’re going to push this as a comedy because comedies tend to sell better,” or whatever it might be.
Paste: The system is kind of single-minded. It doesn’t really know how to push something that doesn’t have an easy identity.
Wang: Yes, exactly. But we’re working really, really hard on our marketing campaign to be able to do all of that and to encapsulate both tones of this film.
Paste: How do you maintain those two tones without one overwhelming the other?
Wang: When I write the film, I’m always exploring characters in a very grounded, real way, and when characters are going through these experiences or emotions, they’re not laughing. They themselves are not laughing. I find the comedy through the directing. Oftentimes my actors will be in the scenes, obviously, and then they’ll later see the movie and they’ll say, “Oh my God, I had no idea this movie was funny!” Because as they’re doing the scenes, they’re not playing it as a comedy. So I find the comedy through camera work, through composition, through what’s going on in the background, so that the characters themselves are not aware that they’re in a comedy. I think that’s the way life is sometimes, too, where we’re not necessarily aware of how ridiculous we’re being, or the ridiculousness of the situation, unless you take a bird’s eye view of the situation and yourself in it.
One example I was talking about earlier too is like, let’s say this was a very dramatic scene, and you were giving me some really terrible news, or I was giving you really terrible news, and you were crying and it was the end of the world, or at least that’s what it felt like. You wouldn’t necessarily know that right on the wall behind you are these ridiculous animals. [Indicates plates painted with truly creepy animal designs hanging on the wall.] You might be crying, and I’m watching you cry, and then my eye drops over there and I’m like, “This is so ridiculous. Life is so ridiculous. These animals are watching you and judging your tears.” [laughing]
Paste: They’re going to haunt my nightmares. I’m afraid of going to sleep. So, I watched Posthumous recently and I’m curious what you got from that film that you took and expanded on with The Farewell, again, maybe in terms of writing, but also in terms of how you wanted to put it together.
Wang: With Posthumous, I was making a very specific genre of film and very much collaborating with my producers as well. We really wanted it to fit into that particular genre, so that was something I kept in mind. What I loved about that movie as I was working on it were those very specific moments of screwball, and people being very dramatic, but it also being very funny, and the quirky characters around the main couple. So as this event was happening with my grandmother, I realized, “Gosh, this is why I love screwball comedies, because life is a screwball.” This setup is screwball, us going back for this fake wedding for my grandma to say goodbye.
I knew that, approaching this film, I didn’t want it to fit into a genre and I didn’t want to approach it traditionally. So I looked to different directors as influences to figure out the kind of comedy was I going for and how was I going to achieve that visually in a way that I don’t think that I fully achieved in Posthumous, because I wasn’t necessarily thinking that way. With this film I wanted every scene, every frame to be filled with that laughing-through-the-tears, crying-through-the-laughter feeling as opposed to one or two specific moments. So I was like looking towards filmmakers like Lukas Moodysson, Mike Leigh is a really big one, Roy Andersson, Ruben Östlund. Östlund is a really big one for me. I love his work so much because I think he does it so well, satire and social commentary, while still exploring really interesting questions.
Paste: Is that something you could see yourself looking for often in your work going forward, finding the screwball in whatever the other component of the film is?
Wang: I think so, but you know, I’m not sure because I think this concept doesn’t have an inherent screwball setup that makes it easy to find that juxtaposition of pathos and humor. Not every film has that. Some films with a more dramatic setup might not have that. So we’ll see. But that’s generally my inclination even through choices of production design. By figuring out what to put in that room, you can add a layer of comedy. As I was saying with those animal plates, those are just great Easter eggs for people who are cinema lovers and who watch things over and over and over again, where you see that scene three times until you notice those ridiculous plates in the background, and then you might start laughing. It gives you a whole new perspective on the scene. As an audience member, I love that. I love films that I can watch over and over again, and every time I see it, I see something different.
Paste: I guess this takes us back to the idea of permission again, because this is about finding your own way of artistic expression, when you’re making a movie set in a particular mood.
Wang: Yeah. I think people expect a certain thing when they hear “Chinese grandma,” “family comedy.” Those things put together, people are expecting the movie to look a certain way and they’re expecting a certain type of performance. I think for me it was about subverting those expectations. Most of it was actually just being authentic to my true experience and my family, but also aesthetically to subvert those expectations of what a comedy can look like. There’s this great saying that the ridiculous is one step removed from the sublime. That’s how I felt going into this movie: How to capture both the ridiculousness and the sublime in the same frame.
Paste: The degree of culture clash, the idea of returning to this place that you’re from—not only are you going because death is on the table, but you tour this place and you go through a series of deaths. The places you knew are no longer there. That kind of experience is a bit scary. Is that important you to get across as well?
Wang: Absolutely. We would oftentimes capture an image, or a place, or a frame, and there would be this feeling of like a ghostliness to it. In frames where grandma’s not there, you really feel that lack, because she’s the matriarch of the family. So definitely, we explored this sense of impending doom and death, but also the secret itself is a monster in the room.
It’s funny that you say that the experience is scary because, and this is going back to permission and expectations, some of the references I used for the film were actually thrillers and horror film, like Rosemary’s Baby. What are the conventions that are used in horror films and thrillers that I could steal? The reason I did that is because horror films do a really great job of creating fear in the room, right? Really putting the audience in the perspective of the protagonists. It’s great at creating atmosphere for impending doom. For Billi the entire trip is this sense of the monster in the room, which is the lie. Is she going to give it up? Is someone going to give it up? Is [her grandmother] going to find out? So I referenced some of those camera techniques, too, as a way to create that same mystery and sense of fear.
Paste: You mention Nai Nai, when she’s not in the frame, her absence being so noticeable and that hangs over the film, but it’s not even like what’s happening in the present. She talks to Billi about her having a wedding, and suddenly the future becomes this incredibly bleak and scary place, too.
Wang: That’s grief. That’s loss. When we lose somebody, we lose them in so many ways: In the past, and the present, and in the future. It leaves a giant hole in our lives, in our hearts.
Paste: Do you hope that people will walk away from the movie with new frameworks for exploring their own bereavement?
Wang: Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t think about it that way necessarily. I think for me it was more that people walk away with a sense of grace, how short our lives are and how valuable love is and family is. How do you learn to appreciate them while they’re around, and how do you embrace joy while they’re here? Both for reasons of, in this circumstance, this belief that joy actually washes away illness, but just in general, instead of focusing on the loss or the potential future loss, really celebrating life while you have people or even celebrating people’s lives when they’re gone.
I was showing the film in Atlanta and the next day I was getting a coffee, and the guy making my coffee said, “I saw your film last night and it made me immediately call my grandmother this morning. I realized I hadn’t talked to her in a few months and I called her right away.” To me, that’s the best response. The film is like that. I makes people appreciate the ones they love, and call them just to say that while they’re still here.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.