Making a film based on personal experiences and, more crucially, those of your own family comes with built-in pitfalls. Especially if, like The Farewell’s writer and director Lulu Wang, it’s based on a family secret. Some years ago, her Chinese grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer but, as far as she was concerned, her cough was no more than the tenacious after effects of a cold. The doctors followed the Chinese protocol of giving the news to her relatives, so the family decided to keep the truth to themselves.
Wang admits that the film, which was screened at this year’s Sundance London and has just scooped the festival’s Audience Favourite Award , was inspired by those events, rather than being “super faithful to the facts. But thematically, in terms of the characters’ relationships, the dynamics and mostly the emotions that I went through when I found out about my grandmother’s illness and the fact that my family wasn’t going to tell her, all of that tension and humour and pathos was very autobiographical.”
With its Chinese setting – both among the New York Chinese community and in Beijing itself – it’s a culturally specific story but, for Wang, that was just half of the narrative. She set out to make a film that was faithful to her own experiences, one that wasn’t made with any particular audience in mind and that, therefore, had a universal appeal. But culture, and the culture clash between East and West, was such an integral part of the story that it was impossible for her to avoid explaining those differences to non-Chinese/Asian audiences. Despite being born in Beijing, she was raised in America, and so didn’t understand many of the concepts she was explaining in the film. Which turned out to be a help.
“When I was writing the script, I asked myself what was the journey that I went through and do I understand where they’re coming from, because I didn’t want to portray it from one side or another, saying that I’m obviously right and they’re obviously wrong and that’s what the story’s about. Ultimately, it was about me asking questions, so I interviewed all my family members – I talked to my uncle, I talked to my dad – and, if there were things that I didn’t understand, I would continuously call them.”
That extensive input from her family made them perhaps the most crucial audience to see the film. Wang laughs as she recalls their reactions at its Sundance Utah screening. They were both personal and very different, even though her parents themselves had read and approved the script beforehand. “I wasn’t there when my mother saw the film – it was my boyfriend and my brother – and she turned to them and said ‘I’m not that mean, am I? That woman is so mean. I feel that I’m not that mean.’ And my boyfriend said ‘No, you’re so much nicer. That’s just a characterization. Lulu’s a film maker, she has to dramatise things in film.’ And then my brother said ‘Mom, what are you talking about? You’re exactly like that!’ He gets it because that’s what she’s like inside the family, while my boyfriend doesn’t see that side of her.”
While The Farewell has its cultural roots both in China and America, some of Wang’s biggest inspirations come from the UK. A self-confessed fan of director Mike Leigh, she wishes time had allowed for his trademark extensive rehearsal period with the team of actors playing the family. As it was, they had the bare minimum, only getting together for the first time just three days before the shoot started. More recently, she’s become a fan of Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
“I’m really impressed by people who are able to handle tones which are unexpected. It’s one thing to say that this is a comedy and you’re going to laugh, or this is a drama and you’re going to cry, or this is a horror and you’re going to be scared. But for me, in life, you don’t know what you’re going to feel. We don’t have those boundaries in real life, so I really respect creators who are able to shift so fluidly between multiple different tones because it means that you never know what you’re going to get from moment to moment. And that’s why I love Fleabag so much because one moment you’re laughing your head off and the next moment you’re crying.” A technique that Wang herself echoes in The Farewell.
Lulu Wang was talking to Freda Cooper.
The Farewell was shown at Sundance London and will be screened again at Picturehouse Central on Saturday, 8 and Sunday 9 June.