‘We’ve all lost someone at some point’ – Lulu Wang on The Farewell

How do you build an entire film upon a lie that you are not only living, but that you don’t really condone? This was the dilemma for Lulu Wang, a filmmaker who has taken a life-changing fabrication and spun it into The Farewell, an autobiographical film about her cancer-stricken grandmother who is none-the-wiser thanks to her family’s decision to keep her in the dark.

It’s an ethical matrix that raises questions of morality, but also challenges cultural differences at a time when the world is in dire need of some empathy. “The purpose of the film is to explore how to approach differences with grace,” says Beijing-born Wang. “I think that we’re living in such polarised times right now that we often look at things in black-and-white. People are so combative – even with people that they love – and instead of asking where the other side is coming from, we immediately attack as a way to defend ourselves.”

Wang and her parents migrated to Miami when she was six, leaving behind her grandmother and remaining family. When news of the cancer broke some six years ago, the choice to keep it a secret was reached under the Chinese belief that fear shortens a person’s life rather than the illness itself, a decision that adult Wang strongly opposed at the time. “I still don’t think that it’s necessarily right,” she says. “But I’ve come to accept it and understand it more through the process of making this film.”

Wang’s on-screen surrogate, Billi, is played by Awkwafina, a rapper-turned-actor who has stolen scenes in the likes of Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians but never shouldered the weight of a dramatic lead. “At first I was looking at actresses that had an introverted perspective,” Wang says of her unconventional casting choice. “But I think that when you have someone who’s normally so extroverted, so funny and strong, that when they break, there’s something even more heartbreaking about it.”

It’s a revelatory performance from Awkwafina, who not only delivers whole chunks of the film in Mandarin (she was born and raised in New York), but also the film’s heavier, more guttural moments with real assurance. “She didn’t know if she would be able to cry – she’d tried to cry in movies before and it had never happened,” Wang recalls. “But once she was on set, she was really able to tap into that sense of loss. We’ve all lost someone at some point.”

Wang’s dedication to her family through her storytelling is what makes The Farewell so remarkable, and though the experience has been deeply upsetting, she has developed an unexpected sense of gratitude for the last few years. “The lie has allowed me to make this film, allowed me to go back home for three months and spend time with my grandma. I haven’t spent that kind of time with her since I was a little kid,” she says. “I don’t think that she ever imagined in her lifetime that she’d be able to see me do what I do. In many ways the lie has been a huge gift for all of us.”

The Farewell receives its UK premiere at Sundance London on 1 June. For more info visit picturehouses.com

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