Finding Your Voice: An Interview with Lulu Wang

The Farewell is heartbreaking in more ways than one. It’s a personal tale – based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s own lived experience (which she first told in 2016 on American radio program This American Life), as she became part of an extended family ploy to hide her Grandma’s (Nai Nai in Mandarin) terminal cancer diagnosis from her. Awkwafina plays Billi, Wang’s stand-in in the film, a Chinese-American raised in New York – who struggles to understand the cultural value system of collectivism underpinning the decision to shield the family matriarch from the truth of her condition. 

The film has enough dramatic tension under the premise of the family’s fabricated secret alone – as they gather in China to bid goodbye to Nai Nai under the guise of Billi’s cousin’s wedding – but Wang ensures that the true resounding centre of her film becomes intertwined with Billi’s internal reflection of her complex cultural identity and heritage.

Surprisingly, the film takes a carefully restrained approach to both threads of the story, and it pays off immensely with its attentive level of detail: the emotion seeps through slowly but surely – though Wang holds it back just enough to leave us hanging with angst, even when it feels like everything around Billi is on the verge of breaking.

During her visit at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Debbie Zhou spoke to Lulu Wang about cross-cultural communication, building tension in a scene and coming to terms with her personal voice as a filmmaker.

Debbie Zhou: When I watched the film, I expected it to hurt me – but I didn’t expect it to completely break me. I think what surprised me about the film was that amongst this crazy premise, there’s also this very simple story about family, connection, and distance – the distances we can feel between generations. I was curious what that process was like capturing the details of your real-life story, and bringing that to the screen?

Lulu Wang: When I first started pitching, I think I started it in a different way than how I approached it in the final film. In that, initially, I was focused on how I was going to market the film, who was going to watch it – maybe I had to make it funnier, or make it more dramatic. And then, after I set up the film at Big Beach, and I had done the American Life story – I approached it in a much more investigative way, where I knew that the experience made me feel a lot of things, and I just asked myself: How can I capture the emotions? It wasn’t about thought. Because nothing really happens – nothing really dramatic happens. But the drama is very interior, because it felt like mountains were crumbling. I think that it was just about figuring out how to visualise interiority.

DZ: I definitely got that interiority a lot from the film, because the film is very intimate. Like, the dinner table scenes – there’s no screaming matches which I feel like a lot of dramas with family conflict have. I never felt like there was that type of heightened sense of drama.

LW: Because I wanted to focus the tension and the drama on Grandma’s story. It felt like that was enough. And there was something so pure about a film asking the question: how do you say goodbye to somebody that you love? And of course, the secret, the lies itself; those things felt like enough because what I love about genre films, for example, like a thriller or horror, is that there is so much tension in a scene. If you know that there’s a monster that’s approaching or hidden or might rear its head at any moment, nothing has to really happen. In fact, the fear, the anticipation, the dread is the thing that takes up the majority of the scenes. More so than when the monster actually appears. So, I took that approach with The Farewell; where the dread of saying goodbye, the dread of Grandma potentially signing out, was the main source of drama and tension.

DZ: With that sense of horror, I think there’s not only that fear – but also all these secrets and lies that happen in the family which I found really subtle, particularly all the cultural conflicts. A lot of people have talked about how this film is universal, but I loved how it is so specific about what it means to be both Chinese and American. Some West vs. East films can feel quite binary, so I was struck by how non-judgemental the film felt. Was that important for you when you approached the film?

LW: Yeah, definitely. I wanted to be as respectful as possible towards the culture, but also because it’s based on my family – I wanted to be respectful to my family. And coming from a place of trying to understand, and confusion. The frustration of not being able to understand, why they would do that sort of thing. And ultimately, even though they have different perspectives, everyone in the family shares one thing – no one wants to lose a matriarch. I think as a Chinese-American immigrant, I’ve had to seamlessly navigate – and not so seamlessly negotiate between two cultures. And they both feel organically part of me. When I’m home at my family, that’s a part of me. But when I’m out in the world, in the States, with my friends or pursuing my career, that’s also a big part of me. Sometimes the value systems between the two worlds contradict each other, but somehow I’ve had to find a way to hold multiple truths at the same time.

DZ: I feel like this film does that – bringing the two worlds together in a way that isn’t judging either. For example, the conclusion of the film: there’s no sense that one way’s right, or one way’s wrong.

LW: I included the conclusion because I think you go into the movie as a Westerner, completely shocked and dismayed that the family would lie – as I did. Knowing the fact of it, the ending of it – adds another layer of uncertainty of what is right. The reality is, we’ll never know, right? When you see the end of the film, you’re like, ‘Did it work? Did the lie work?’. I can’t think about the lie without that knowledge, without knowing that potentially – you know, at least my family thinks that it worked.

DZ: I want to talk about this film being the first independent co-production with China. Particularly what was the process like bringing the film to life in China, and working with Chinese actors?

LW: It was really amazing working with Chinese talent. Obviously, the system there is very different, so it was very challenging for my producers and I to navigate the day-to-day and the bureaucracy and things like that. But…the talent there was so incredible because the set felt like an extension of my family – organised chaos, and everybody was just hands-on. And the actors were working all the time there – they’re tremendously talented and professional: they’d show up and they were able to hit the mark, time and time again.

DZ: I definitely feel like that gave it another layer of authenticity to the story, and it really came through.

LW: Thank you. I wanted them to resonate with the story and understand – and they did. I would say to them, ‘Because I’m not from here, does this feel right? Would you say it in these words?’. We had to use a translator, because I don’t write Chinese. So, I had to rely on the actors to really bring their own experiences and their own knowledge to lend yet another layer of authenticity.

DZ: When you were saying that you had someone else translate your words, are you saying that you wrote the script, and then they translated it into Chinese?

LW: Yeah, because I speak Chinese and I can understand it. But I don’t write it, so I had to translate it in my head to get it down on paper. And then we gave the English script to a Chinese translator but – it’s such an art, translation. They would translate it far too literal, or not necessarily colloquial, or misunderstand what I was trying to get at. And so then I brought my parents to go through it – because they could read it to me – and make sure that everybody sounded colloquial. Sometimes the actors would get a scene, and we would miss a line or two in terms of the editing, and I would ask them, ‘Does that sound normal to you? Would you say it that way?’, and I would allow them the freedom to change it.

DZ: Miscommunication and cross-cultural conflict are running themes in your film so I was wondering if you carefully thought about language – the intersections between English, Chinese and ‘Chinglish’, when you wrote the script?

LW: Yeah definitely, I thought a lot about it because the film is about this lie, this secret, something unspoken. But thematically, it’s also about things that can’t be spoken because of all of these gaps, because of the effects of the family immigrating to America. And once you leave China and do immigrate, you’re forever changed. Even the parents go back with more Western values. So, there are just certain things that are lost in translation because of this cultural gap. But also, especially because of this language gap – there are things that Billi doesn’t say to Grandma. But there are also things that she can’t say, because of this distance between the two of them.

DZ: Like, an inability to almost communicate the words.

LW: To communicate the words, or not having the language to properly talk about it. Or, you know, in the beginning – when she [Billi] is lying about whether or not she’s wearing a hat, or she gets stopped on the street, and Grandma says, ‘Who is that?’. It’s not really that it’s a lie, where she says, ‘It’s a friend’. But how do you explain that to somebody on the other side of the world? First of all, I wouldn’t even know what a street canvasser would be in Chinese, but if I explained that to my Grandma, she would probably freak out, and be like – ‘Don’t touch a stranger! Why are you engaging with this person who is asking you for money?’. You go down this rabbit-hole, so you just go, ‘It’s nobody Grandma, it’s just a friend.’ It’s an ease, but it’s also a little bit sad. Because there’s just this gap between you and your loved ones.

DZ: I completely agree. And the scene that actually wrecked me in the film was when Billi starts talking about what’s left after all your relatives from another country pass away – what is your connection to that country anymore? Whenever I go back to China, it’s about trying to grasp as much knowledge or information as you can – but you know there’s only so much you can retain or get at.

LW: Exactly.

DZ: Bouncing off that, I think there’s a wave or phenomenon of 2nd generation immigrants who are beginning to really take pride in their identities and embrace the quirks that come with being in between two cultures. Do you feel like The Farewell’s reception has been affected by this movement in any way?

LW: Maybe, it’s really hard to say. When I was making The Farewell, it was before Crazy Rich Asians had come out. And the reality is no one wanted to make it, until I did This American Life. It was too Chinese for American investors, and it was too American for Chinese investors. It didn’t feel like I could carve out my own space, and so in the process of making the film – I didn’t necessary think so. But now, since I’ve made it, in the last two or three years, since the film has come out, I do see the culture shifting. And I think that continuing to put work out that represents the specificities of where we come from, and who we are, will contribute to that movement because I think representation is a form of validation that you’re OK. And I didn’t grow up having that representation, and so – as a kid, you just want to fit in, and you think: There’s nobody that looks like me, so I have to fit in over here or over there. You’re trying to find a box to fit into. And I think it took me a long time to really understand my voice as an artist was actually to create from this place of not fitting in, or about being in between.

DZ: And do you think the actual filmmaking process helped you find closure in terms of that as well?

LW: Definitely, because when I started out making films, people would say ‘Well you have to make something personal. You have to find your voice’. And I didn’t know what that meant. Did that mean I had to make something Asian? Does ‘personal’ have to mean that it is Asian-American? And how was I going to do it on my own terms? Am I just being put into a box, whether that’s by other Asian-Americans, or by white Americans – being like, ‘This is who you are. This is the kind of content that you have to make’. How do I find my own relationship to identity, or my personal voice? And I think those are not things I would necessarily be asking myself if I wasn’t a filmmaker. And also, you’re just trying to navigate Hollywood and get something made, which is already an uphill battle when you are Asian-American.

So I think that with my journey in making The Farewell, I was able to ultimately find a way to tell stories from a place of being centered – and I’m sure this will continue to evolve as I tell other stories – but yeah, just figuring out what is my voice: Does it have to be Asian-American? And what is my relationship to that representation?

DZ: Those are all really complicated questions, aren’t they?

LW: Does that make sense with what I’m trying to say?

DZ: Oh yeah.

LW: Because I wanted it to be on my own terms, but I also don’t think that as a minority – you should be policed or boxed in by other people. I think we have to find it for ourselves where our identities lie, where our voice lies.

DZ: Yes! I think everyone is unique, but it’s really easy to pigeonhole someone as doing one thing, right?

LW: Exactly, yeah.

DZ: I feel the same way as a critic. Those are all questions you ask, especially as an Asian-Australian critic – do I always want to be talking about Asian-Australian topics, or can I do other things?

LW: Right. But at the same time, the sense of responsibility…where you do want to cover Asian [-American/Australian topics], and talk about representation because it’s very important. And if we’re not the ones doing about it–

DZ: – then who is?

LZ: Yeah exactly.

The Farewell is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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Debbie Zhou is an arts writer/critic and managing editor of Rough Cut. She’s just a bit obsessed with movies and theatre, and she will always get behind a good film score. Her words also appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal and more. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou

Debbie Zhou

Debbie is a film & theatre critic and a managing editor of Rough Cut. Her words appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal, among others. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou or pop into her inbox at debbiezhoumedia@gmail.com