Truth beyond facts: Lulu Wang talks role of memories, question of representation in ‘The Farewell

Illustration of Lulu Wang
Samantha Patten/Staff

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Lulu Wang’s grandmother, her Nai Nai, hasn’t seen “The Farewell.” Though the matriarch’s 2013 cancer diagnosis provided the basis from which Wang stitched the film, Nai Nai remains unaware of the work’s premise. “She doesn’t know,” the 36-year-old filmmaker said unblinkingly in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Within the context of “The Farewell,” which catapulted Wang to widespread acclaim after its soaring success at Sundance this January and subsequent acquisition by A24, such a lack of transparency isn’t particularly surprising. “Based on an actual lie,” as its opening credits proclaim, the film is roughly inspired by Wang’s lived narrative — her family’s choice to keep the grim prognosis a secret from Nai Nai and their staging of a wedding as an excuse for relatives to gather and bid their final goodbyes. While the real Nai Nai survived, she remains unaware of the near-fatality. 

The lack of transparency that guides the film’s premise may seem unthinkable to many Western audiences, but it’s one with which Wang has toyed in previous films. “Posthumous,” her first feature piece (which she called “your sort of classic 1950s screwball comedy thing”), centers on one man’s elaborate scheme to profit off of a faked death. The film is all about how to find the truth within the context of a lie. Deceit in“The Farewell,” however, covers a less-traversed terrain: the more essential question of the nature of truth in the first place. 

“I’m making a fiction film about something autobiographical in my life. So if I don’t stick to the facts, does that make it a lie?” Wang said. “When you perform and you work with actors, you’re never going to be 100 percent factually accurate because, you know, the people are not the people that are playing them. And so it’s about a greater truth than just facts,” she noted.

For Wang, truth in “The Farewell” has more intimate ties to replicating a specific sense of experience than to portraying exactly what happened when. Throughout the production process, her compass remained, above all, her memories of this unsettling chapter in her life. Wang said she aimed for a trueness to her own understanding of what happened — a mission that her original telling of the tale on “This American Life” helped empower her to pursue, she explained. 

“In a particular moment, think back: How did that make you feel?” Wang recalled the podcast’s producers urging her as she was recording the episode. “And so I wanted to have a similar process when making the film, that it was purely an investigative perspective and really rooted in characters and emotions,” she said. 

Wang carried this approach into the screenwriting process from the get-go. She recounted that the first scenes she penned did not so much move the plot forward as represent the emotional palettes for which she was aiming. She highlighted one such scene, in which the surrogate of Wang’s uncle tells the protagonist Billi (Awkwafina) about the lie and what she can and cannot say. 

Wang’s own memories of the real conversation are visceral — the smells in the room, its smoke, its lighting. This is what she hoped to translate onto the screen: “I wanted to protect that scene for what it was, which was just kind of weird and odd,” she said. “It doesn’t move the story forward. It’s not a necessary scene per se, but it added to the overall texture.”

The film’s inextricable tie to such an experience-based authenticity also informs how Wang understands its role in the broader conversation of representation in film. “I set out to make a very specific film about my family. That means it’s Chinese American,” she said. 

But does that mean she specifically set out to make an Asian American film? “I didn’t,” she asserted, noting that she did so no more than a white director sets out to create a white film with an autobiographical project. “When you’re inside a culture, you’re just speaking from your own experience and your own heart. You’re not approaching representation for the sake of representation,” she said, shrugging matter-of-factly. 

Wang cautioned against the glorification of diversity, noting its easy and dangerous spiral into exoticization. She advocated, instead, for inclusion: “It’s about including voices and asking people … who have traditionally not had their voices expressed, asking them: ‘What is your experience like, and how do we tell your specific story?’ ”

Working on “The Farewell” and witnessing the depth with which its narrative has resonated with so many viewers has only further justified to Wang her dedication to authenticity in telling her story — a genuineness that, as a woman of color, she finds regularly contested, she said. She anticipates that the now-visible rewards of uncompromisingly maintaining her vision throughout the process of working on this film will inform her future work.

One can imagine that, without its careful attention to detail and the subtle truths of Wang’s experience, “The Farewell” would lose the intimate ease with which so many audiences have already related to it. Of this, Wang is well aware: “You can achieve universality through specificity,” she said. “I think that’s actually the only way to appeal to a broader audience, is by being as specific and personal as possible. And so I think that I’ll always now approach my future films in the same way.”

Ryan Tuozzolo is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].